In the Eye of the Storm

Hurricane Michael has brought so many changes to my home in the Panhandle of Florida. One thing that has not changed is the resilience and faith of the people in the region. Watching the countless volunteers, the residents reaching out in their own hour of need to help another, witnessing random acts of kindness daily, has inspired me to embark on a new project.

In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle is a new project I have undertaken. Collecting the inspiring stories of people who rode out the storm, were first on the scene in the aftermath, who have weathered the weeks since Michael slammed into our area, and who have come from far and wide to assist, remind me daily of the strength of the human spirit and the power of hope.

Countless people rode out the Category 4 storm and swear they will never do it again. Volunteers pouring into the state in the days following the destruction repeatedly said they have never seen anything like it. City and county officials promise rebuilding has begun and that the area will be back stronger than ever.

It’s the residents though, the ones who awoke the following morning to a world inexplicably altered, that are at the heart of this project. The survivors. The broken. The devastated. It’s their voices that tell the story best. It’s their words that bring it home for us all. These are the stories of the brave, the hopeful, the determined as much as they are of the suffering and the brokenhearted.

Bayside Church, located in downtown Panama City, Florida following the devastation of Hurricane Michael on October 10, 2018.

Like the members of Bayside Church, previously located in the heart of downtown Panama City next to Bay High School. In preparation for the newly remodeled Tommy Oliver Stadium requiring additional parking, the Church had just sold the property to the City and purchased a new property a few miles away. Both structures were destroyed by Michael.

Yet, the first Sunday following the storm, the members met in the parking lot of their devastated church, along with Elevation Life Church to worship with grateful hearts.  Following the service, members, guests, and residents in the area enjoyed hamburgers and hotdogs and then spent the afternoon handing out collected supplies and assisting people all across the city.

“Hurricane Michael may have destroyed our churches,” said Bayside member, Jan Soper, “but he couldn’t keep us from gathering to worship.”

“We may have lost a building. Some of us have lost our homes. Some of us have lost everything,” explained member, Ashley Davis, “But today, we were able to love on and encourage one another in person.”

Annabeth Nelson, known as AB to family and friends, and Brianna Grandberg had decided to ride out the storm in their townhome located off busy 23rd Street in Panama City. Preparations had been completed and they hunkered down with their pets and a prayer. It wouldn’t take long for those prayers to turn to screams as Michael made landfall.

Their townhome flooded, the water rising with every second. When it reached almost to their chests they decided it was time to make their way across the parking lot of the TGI Friday’s next to their home in order to take shelter in the First Federal Bank building next to it. The three-story brick building seemed a better option.  Their nightmare wasn’t over though; the hardest moments were still to come.

The Townhomes where AB and Brianna lived were destroyed in the storm along with the majority of their belongings. 

A few days after the storm, AB posted this excerpt on her FaceBook page. After reading it, I knew I had to include them in this project. Her fear was palpable, yet her hope and faith unshaken.

“They say there are moments you never forget. I can tell you I will never forget this day the sounds, feeling of the walls moving behind my back while sitting in the stairwell, thinking to myself, my last moments are here. Thinking I would never see my family or friends again. Wondering if they were going to be okay. Trying to keep all my animals calm as the wind whipped throughout the building and the stairwell doors began to blow open as we rushed to tie the dogs’ leashes to them so they would stay closed. I’ve honestly never been so scared in my entire life.

bank building
The remains of the bank building where AB and Brianna sheltered with their dogs during Hurricane Michael is but a shell of what it used to be.

The moment after the terror was over will always remain. Going out slowly to make sure it was safe, looking around and thinking this can’t be real. Realizing I am stuck in this demolished building, then finally hearing someone yelling for us faintly under the alarms. Seeing them and hearing them say, “We have to get you guys out of this building quickly!”

Wading in waist deep water to higher ground with all our pets in hand, finally seeing my dad’s truck driving around trying to locate us (AB’s dad is a first responder). Waving him down from the back of stranger’s pick up truck and finally hugging my sister, Bekah’s neck and crying because she was alive and well. Finally making it to my parents home and seeing my mom okay and going with my dad and sister to find my other sister, Savannah and my brother-in-law, Harrison. Thinking in my head, “Dear God,  I pray she is okay.”

Climbing over trees, downed power lines, so much debris to finally make it into the Cove.  Finally, seeing my sister’s face was the best feeling I’ve ever felt. My immediate family was safe, but we still had a lot of other family and friends in the area. It would be days before we’d know if they were safe.”

Days later, after being able to see or hear from her family and friends, knowing they were alive and well, was a feeling AB said she doesn’t have the words to describe. “Brianna and I are so lucky to be alive and even though we lost everything we still have each other. That is all that really matters. We will get through this and come out even stronger on the other side.”

My goal with this project is to publish In the Eye of the Storm and through sales, raise money to help support victims and the rebuilding of our beautiful Panhandle. The resilience and beauty of the people here are inspiring and so worthy of recognition.

broken sunrise
The landscape looks different, but the sun rose this morning just the same, the moon giving way to the dawn.

© 2018  Jennifer Nelson Fenwick