“Everyone here has a story of loss they struggle to describe and recovery they cannot yet comprehend.”
1. There was no way to adequately prepare.
We’d done this before, many of us, more than once; prepared for the possibility of a hurricane visiting us during the Season. We were used to Summer ushering in, not just the tourists, but the Atlantic Hurricane Season as well. Hurricane Season begins the first of June and lasts through the end of November every year.
Living in the Panhandle of Florida, we knew that during any given Season we could be at risk, so preparedness was something we took seriously. Many of us had remained through Opal (1995) and Ivan (2004) and felt confident we could safely weather Michael as well.
But there are some things you can’t prepare for. Some things that happen so quickly and change so dramatically that no amount of preparation matters. Hurricane Michael was one of those.
“I think that if people are comparing storms, what was really fascinating was that Michael was still intensifying when it was making landfall, which is similar to Hurricane Camille also intensifying as it moved inland,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski, in an article that appeared in Time Magazine. “Other storms, like Hurricane Opal in 1995, actually went from a category 4 to 3, just like most storms that make landfall on the Gulf Coast tend to weaken.”
In an October 10, teleconference organized by FEMA, Brad Kieserman, vice-president for disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross said, “This storm intensified extremely quickly. It didn’t give anyone time to do much. And the one thing you can’t get back in a disaster is time.”
2. The destruction was catastrophic and widespread.
Michael’s path was far reaching. From the coast of the Panhandle deep into the farming and forestry communities of north Florida and Georgia, he carved massive swaths of utter destruction.
As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare of unimaginable proportions.
“Nothing, and I stress NOTHING, could have prepared us for what we saw,” said Jane Smith, who rode out the storm with her husband and son in their Bay County home. “I think at this point we went into shock.” Smith and her family, like many, lost everything and are now trying to recover and rebuild in this new normal.
As the days crept by, the nightmare only worsened. Residents in the affected areas struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who returned, once allowed, faced total destruction of their property.
“Just 1 in 10 of Panama City’s homes and businesses scraped by unscathed. The rest were damaged or destroyed, local officials said. The county property appraiser put the damage total in Bay County alone at $1.3 billion and counting.”
Kathryn Varns | Tampa Bay Times | 27 DEC 2018
“With nowhere to go people were resigned to living in campers, tents, or bunking with neighbors, and relying on portable toilets and boxed ready-to-eat meals provided by FEMA, the Red Cross or other volunteers,” reported The Guardian in an October 26, 2018 article by Jamiles Lartey.
Power was destroyed. Water was dangerous to use and consume. Cell and internet service was nonexistent. Cut off from the rest of the world, each day brought new struggles.
Some recovery efforts began immediately. Like the over 6,000 linemen who descended on the region within hours to restore power to the 800,000 residents left in the dark.
Like the acres and acres of felled trees, the region’s power lines and grids suffered the same fate courtesy of Micheal’s more than 155-mph sustained winds.
Search and recovery began within hours with teams of first responders, National Guard, and law enforcement from around the country deployed to the area. Safety was the number one priority in the aftermath of Michael’s intense fury.
In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through the piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town.
Even now, almost six months after Michael, Mexico Beach is in tatters. According to a WJHG/WECP story which aired on March 28, “There are only three restaurants currently open in Mexico Beach, three of its four hotels have been demolished, and the other one is still being rebuilt.”
“This landscape is changed forever. For lack of a better term, desolate,” said Al Burnett, a Mexico Beach resident, whose home was literally lost to Michael’s storm surge. “My best educated guess is that things will never be right for maybe the next three or four years … maybe never.”The Guardian | 29 October 2018
The impact from Michael is not just limited to the coastal region of the Florida Panhandle. The widespread catastrophic damage spread well inland as Michael remained at hurricane strength into the rural and farming communities of Florida and southwest Georgia, before passing through Virginia and North Carolina, and then finally making his way back out to the Atlantic.
3. The World moved on. We could not.
Traveling anywhere in the impacted regions feels more akin to moving through the aftermath of an apocalypse than home. The constant and ever-present reminders are a blow to the psyche and a punch to the gut every single day.
“People get lost driving around because landmarks were wiped out. They spray-paint their address on a piece of plywood and lean it against the garage door. They eat dinner in a McDonald’s surrounded by construction workers chowing down on quarter-pounders” (Tampa Bay Times).
And while basic necessities have been restored, life in the region is far from normal as people struggle to make a way in this dramatically altered landscape.
Currently, some displaced families are living in a tent city in the backyard of one generous woman who decided that instead of turning her back, she would do something. People have been forced to take shelter in campers, parked in the driveways of homes without roofs, sometimes without structures at all. Others have been forced to return to their all-but-leveled apartment complexes because there is simply nowhere else to go.
As of mid December, FEMA has given out about $28 million in housing repair grants, approved about 14,000 homeowners and renters for rental assistance, and had about 600 families staying in hotels. But without properties to rent and hotels quickly filled to capacity these are short-term solutions. Once the money runs out, with still no home to return to, what becomes of those already struggling before the storm?
To make matters worse. Donations for Michael to three of the top disaster aide organizations have fallen well below the national average for similar storms, like Harvey, Florence, and Irma, who also hit the South in the past two years. “Survivors of Hurricane Michael fear that they’ve been forgotten,” (The Washington Post, 6 APRIL 2019).
4. The numbers don’t lie.
Since October 10, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid bureaucracy threaten to swirl into a massive storm of its own.
- In Bay County alone, 5,500 students have had to leave their living situations because of hurricane damage (News Herald, 28 MAR 2019).
- Skyrocketing rent prices have further compounded the housing crisis (My Panhandle, 22 MAR 2019).
- Health officials report that signs of mental health problems and trauma are on the rise following Michael, including an increase in the number of Baker Act incidents in the school district (WJHG, 13 MAR 2019).
- More than 3 million acres of Florida’s forestry industry were severely damaged by Michael and about half of the damage was catastrophic, meaning 95 percent of the trees were lost, according to the Florida Forestry Service. With large tracts of managed land in the region, the storm is expected to cost the timber industry more than $1.3 billion (News Herald, updated 1 APR 2019).
- In Florida, cotton farmers essentially lost most of the season’s crop, which was ready for harvesting when it was swept away by the 155-mph winds. Aquaculture along the Gulf Coast, including oyster farming, suffered 80 percent to 100 percent losses from Michael (Jim Turner, News Service of Florida).
- Michael barreled through Georgia at Cat 3 strength causing nearly $2.5 billion in damage, to the state’s agricultural industry. State agriculture commissioner Gary Black said the losses were “our worst dreams being realized.” Crops of all kinds—cotton, timber, and vegetables—suffered heavy damages. (Atlanta Magazine, 17 JAN 2019).
- Hurricane Michael left nearly seven times the debris of Hurricane Irma, which barreled across 45 counties in 2017 (Pensacola News Journal, 8 JAN 2019).
- Hurricane Michael is responsible for 35 deaths in Florida, 45 total (NBC Miami, 28 OCT 2018).
“Of all the Florida Panhandle areas affected by Michael, Bay County was hardest hit: Officials said almost three-quarters of its 68,000 households were affected. Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, who is leading a hurricane recovery initiative, estimated about 20,000 people were homeless in the weeks after the October storm.”
AP News | 4 MARCH 2019
5. The future may be uncertain, but we remain determined.
As we navigate this strange new world, there are days when the frustration and grief become overwhelming. Days when the determination grows stronger. Days when the fatigue and stress settle deeper into our bones.
Through it all, we try to remain hopeful. The world may have moved on, the impacts of Michael may still be revealing themselves, recovery and rebuilding may be ongoing with no definitive end in sight, but there’s one thing we’re all certain of, it will be a long time, and a lot of hard work, before we are OK again.
© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Bay County resident, author/editor,
In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle
55 Replies to “Hurricane Michael: Five Things the World Should Know”
I live in Panama City Beach on the east end of the beach. We live in a small neighborhood. Everyone had evacuated except myself and my daughter). When the hurricane hit us our front door flew open. My cat ran under my bed. My daughter ran to my bathroom.
I stayed in the living room watching out of the window in disbelief and horror as what I thought was was my neighbors roof coming off of her home. Later I would find out it was her sunroom, screened in porch and carport that ripped away from her home flew over her house hitting my home. This was more than I could handle seeing.
I went to the bathroom where my daughter was and prayed for God to save her life.I felt we would die in this horrific hurricane. I could feel the floor shaking beneath my feet. The rain coming in on us and the sound….I will never forget the sound and feel of this intense hurricane. I walked out of the bathroom to be hit and knocked down to the floor from the hurricane. I managed to somehow climb in my bed.
After the storm my daughter awakened me. I knew something had happened, although I could not get my thoughts together. She told me we had been through a hurricane and our carport was crushed at our door. The damage and mental effects this has had on not only our lives but everyone that had a loss is tremendous. We are weary from living without basic necessities for life we take for granted (heating , air, roof. windows….our HOME..
We all seem to share this bond though of what we went through and still have our lives and our family which we are so grateful. The small funds we have received we have been grateful for. The Army corp of engineers came out and helped with the blue roof and cut away our carport so we could get in and out of our home.The blue tarp will remain as there is no Ins to start over. Our electric almost burned our entire home up. We have no heat , air has to be turned on at the electrical panel with fan running continuously. The electrician said the panel is not safe.There is too much to name what has been lost.
We will continue to be 850STRONG as long as we can. I look for this hurricane to be up graded in the records to a category 5 instead of a 4. I do hope congress will release the funds so we can get back to a normal way of life and have some peace and normalcy. God Bless to all that has been through this horrific hurricane!!!
God bless you and your family. We are #850strong. But we can’t do this alone. Continued prayers and hope ♥️
The sustained winds were actually clocked at 165mph and gusts over 200mph. What else could take a train off the track?? Not just 1 car but a few cars. They are still fighting over it with the insurance companies. Therefore the question is why are they fighting so hard to keep it a CAT 4 AND NOT WHAT IT ACTUALLY WAS, A CAT 5???!!!!
There are so many unanswered questions like this.
I live on the east coast and have many relatives there.We had gotten my aunt and uncle to come to us.and have been back there many times and what you wrote is true but it still falls so short of the reality of driving in and out of there that it takes several days to feel normal again but we will keep going and helping in anyway we can.I just can’t understand why they have not received more help from the gov’t.I guess they have forgotten New Orleans too soon.Thank you for what you have done.signed Sandra king 4/18/2019
The reality is heartbreaking. 187 days later and still no assistance in the form of Federal Relief aide. Schools are closing, homelessness is on the rise, victims are being taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors, rental price gouging, insurance companies. The list goes on. And still a sense of hope continues to prevail. I pray that it continues too. 🙏🏻
I am not from Bay County but from neighboring Jackson County to the North. There are many homes in this small town that are still damaged and some seem to be held together by only the blue tarped roofs (temporary covering to help shelter homes from rain, sun, wind, cold and hot temperatures). 6mos later, I’m quite sure the tarps expiration dates have long passed but they remain the prevalent roof color for as far as the eye can see from here. We are rebuilding slowly and you can still hear the beating of hammers and the humming of chainsaws on any given day from daylight until way after dark. Except on Sunday mornings when I’ve noticed a peaceful calm as I’ve heard the church bell ringing clearly. A sound I hadn’t heard or noticed in quite some time. GOD is here working with us! A big concern for me and my family (I am living w/my parents that are 77 & 84 yrs old) is theft. And that seems to be getting worse here. As a kid here in the 70’s, we knew everyone in town, what they drove, who their momma was, etc. We left doors unlocked and windows open. Now some of us can’t lock doors bc they are bent from the frame, and windows are cracked or missing glass. We feel unsafe and unprotected in our own homes and like my 84yr old father, I want to protect what little I have left! The local police (JCSO) are doing a great job and I see them making rounds and we hear the sirens at all hours of the night. But we still sleep w/ one eye open and a keen ear in fear of a stranger coming to take what little we have left. My Daddy was in the Army and he said it looked like a war zone right after “Michael”. I feel like we will all be fighting this war in our minds for a long, long time! GOD BLESS everyone in THE (850). My Mama says, THIS TOO SHALL PASS! WE MUST PRESS ALONG!
I’ve heard so many stories like this as I travel around the area. It’s heartbreaking and daunting the task before us. I too grew up in this area in the 70’s and 80’s so I feel your hurt when you talk about the changes taking place because of Michael. We are all changed, but hopefully in positive ways and stronger for it. I pray God’s blessings on you and your family ♥️
thank you for expressing and describing the physical and emotional devastation that i have found no words for. we were spared as hurricane michael veered west at the last minute, but have seen the tragic results left behind. now, at 76, i truly understand the true implications of a ‘war zone’.
War zone is an apt description for the devastation all around us.
I am still displaced an hour away from Lynn Haven. I’m amazed at the fortitude and endurance of everyone I know who have lived through this devastating event. I pray my house will be livable soon but it’s already 6 months tomorrow. My heart goes out to so many that didn’t have insurance and had to go up against all the barriers/ hoops the government has made them jump through. And not a word on the national level of concern for our wellbeing. Thank you for writing this great description of what has happened here. I have faith every one. God Bless you all.
God bless you! ♥️
Thank you. Your article reminds the world never to forget the people of the Panhandle and their ongoing need for help, prayers & survival in the years ahead.
In times of need, lectures are not recommended. Time is our friend, for it will go on. In time’s passing, Michael’s survivors will be heralded as the unbending and strong. We know them not only by name, but as our friends, brothers, sisters, our neighbors. God’s speed.
You have done a splendid job on this article! Having lost nearly all of my belongings in almost four feet of storm surge in Katrina here on the Mississippi coast, I can totally relate. After about fifteen months of tears, struggles, help from many wonderful volunteers and many, many prayers, my house was repaired and livable. Through the tears and struggles, you have to look around and see your safe family, friends and neighbors and realize that is all that is really important, everything else is just “stuff.” I hope your area can come back sooner than ours. Fourteen years almost and evidence of Katrina is still very visible. Things will never return to “normal,” but you will one day adjust to a “new normal!” Many prayers for all of you who are dealing with Michael’s aftermath! !
Thank you for your uplifting words. They do provide us with hope that in time we will be ok. It just seems so surreal still. Bay County has been my family’s home since the 1940’s and seeing the changes and destruction is truly heartbreaking. I appreciate your message of hope.
Our library, in Port St Joe, is collecting Storm Stories to be held in the local history area. May we print and add this entry to the collection? It would serve as a great introduction and overall summary of the storm and would help give the various entries some unification. We have some adult stories and also 40 from our local students. We would appreciate your consideration of this request.
Of course. I would also be happy to get you some copies of the book I authored and edited, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle. It’s currently available on Amazon. Many contributors from across the region write stories, poetry and submitted photos chronicling their experiences that day and in the immediate aftermath. All monies from sales go to assist with local recovery. I’d even be happy to bring some and maybe do a reading and book signing with some of the contributors. Sharing our stories is so important as we move forward.
This has really hit home for me, I suffered from PTSD before the storm but never as much as now. My job was literally blown away as we rode the storm out in a building that came down around us. Our nursing facility did not evacuate, as no one thought this storm would be as destructive as it was. My coworkers and I just kept moving residents to safer areas as the building rapidly suffered massive damage. In the aftermath, my job was gone, my apartment was gone, and I had to evacuate to another area with my patients to continue to care for them. When they were finally safe and I was able to return, the loss was overwhelming. I took a job in Niceville but had to drive back and forth to Panama City daily until I finally relocated. Starting over and buying a home at 58 isn’t easy, and the nightmares continue. PTSD is something that is hard to explain to those not effected but on the rare occasion that I have to travel into Panama City it hits me, I cry, and a fear and panic envelopes me. I cannot get out of the area fast enough! I am blessed that I am one of the few who were able to start over and leave, and I can’t even begin to think of the ones who had no choice but to remain in the area and the sheer despair they must feel at times! Like many others FEMA was no help, It seemed like they always needed some kind of proof that I had lost everything and the continued red tape made me give up trying. I believe that I am not the only one who has opted to move on without the assistance as it was only adding to the stress to keep trying to “prove” I had suffered so much loss. FEMA has become a joke to many, in an area where communication was spotty at best FEMA kept requesting you to fax or email something else which was a task in itself as you had to go miles away to accomplish it. Giving up was easier. I’m taking it day by day now, I still have nightmares when it storms, and things will never be back to normal as I am unsure just what normal is at this point. Thank you for such a well written article, you really captured the feelings and frustrations of the community.
I am so very sorry for your pain and suffering. Sorry it has been compounded by an inept system when it is clear that your job is in service to others. This storm, these experiences have changed us all. There are just no words left to describe the despair and heartache all around us. I pray, with all my heart, for peace and healing for you, and for us all. God bless you ♥️
My job allows me time to talk to people everyday. One question always asked is how did you do? We all know we are talking about Michael. It helps to talk about the experience and what is happening now even to someone you may only know for a couple of hours. Our stories are all the same and different. Some lost everything and some like myself just shingles and need some minor indoor repairs. Everyone I have talked to seem to be optimistic and are of the mind set of OK this terrible thing happened now it’s time to put our boots on and rebuild!
Hopeful and determined! Thank you for your positive words! 🌹
I just read this. I along with others see and drive by homes and buildings that are condemned and still need to be turn down. So many houses still need repairs, and still have tarps on their roofs just to stay dry. Places we went to in town we now have to drive 20 to thirty min to get to over the bridge. Panama City Beach, 30A, and Destin are really the normal places to go . Panama city, Parker, Callaway, Springfield, Tyndall, and Mexico Beach well never be normal even if we ever finish repairing.
It does feel like that. It’s heartbreaking and scary sometimes. That’s where faith comes in. Keep hold of faith and believe things will get better in town.
There are so many sad stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. I feel like I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop as bad news continues to come. A friend of mine is a counselor who opened fairly quickly after the storm. She said that the first day she went back to the office she had people in her parking lot even though she hadn’t made any appointments. As she listened to their desperate stories, she said they looked at her with eyes that looked dead. I feel fortunate I can stay in my apartment even though it’s missing walls and AC. I pray global warming doesn’t let this happen again. To read my blog go to https://singleboomerlife.com/2018/12/31/a-single-baby-boomer-survives-hurricane-michael/.
God bless her and you! 🙏🏻
Yours is one of the best descriptions of our experience – thank you for that. I frequently wonder if we’ll ever recover, since emotions are still so raw at the nearly 6-month “recovery” mark. I talk to a lot of people every week through my job. Approximately 98% of them seem to have a very strong emotional reaction that they are holding right below the surface of normal behavior, and it’s just waiting for an excuse to erupt. Any little thing can trigger the reaction. For some the response is tears of sadness, frustration, or helplessness. For others, it’s anger and sometimes even violence. For all of us life is, quite simply, really hard right now. I hope we survive it without too many scars.
I pray every day for our continued strength and healing. God bless you and thank you for your kind words. 🌸
Great perspective …thank you. I have said before that this storm was like losing a loved one….you think you are better…then as you drive somewhere, the crying comes…you think “how did that happen?” It seems to be for no reason, but no matter how much or how little each of us lost. …the devastation we see day after day gets down inside you. I am 71..I will never see a trees 100 feet tall again with beautiful shade for my home . The loss of trees….birds…even turtles that visited..gone. So it is tough. I pray daily for those who lost so much and are dealing daily with that. I am blessed to have a home….even with damage showing up. Truly I am.
I feel the same. Panama City has been my family’s home since the 1940’s. My siblings and I were born and raised here. My husband’s family moved here from Arizona over 30 years ago. We are all hurting. But we’re healing too. God bless you 🙏🏻
Have lived in Gulf County since 1957, raised my children here, worked and made our home here, it was a great devastation to return after Hurricane Michael and see everything gone. Chose to stay here and rebuild one day at a time. It is not an easy task at the age of 77 to start over after loosing 50 plus years of investing in your home and properties. One thing for sure I am not alone in this long recover journey and it will take us all pulling together one day at a time to recover to a somewhat normal but never back to where we all were prior to October 10, 2018. Have been through many hurricanes, tornados, fires and floods, but this one was the worst we have ever been through in my lifetime.
Thank you for the very good article and shedding light on what so many went through, continue going through each day for years to come.
God bless you and thank you for sharing your story. Its stories like yours that remind us to have faith and to continue moving forward one day at a time. May blessings light your way forward 🙏🏻
My wife and I left after 2 weeks and began an odyssey that found us couch surfing for 3 months while I tried to find a steady job and permanent place to stay. ..PTSD became real for her. .now we struggle to find normalcy. .losing everything at 70 years of age has made us reinvent ourselves but with the help of God and family we have hope. .our prayers go out to our friends that can do nothing but stay and take it one day at a time
My heart goes out to you both. God bless you ♥️
Thanks for the perspective. I can’t agree more. As a victim of PTSD from decades of working in emergency services, this has pushed me to the edge. I am receiving help, but it pains me to know so many are not. Thank you for sharing.
May God continue to bless you. Thank you 🌹
Very good article, you hit the nail on the head – I lived in Panama City for 20+ years recently move to Tallahassee – My Dad is now with us as his home was damaged and just diagnosed with Cancer right before the storm hit. #850Strong will rebuild – it will be different – it will take time the emotional healing will take longer. Prayers for everyone touched by this ……
Prayers for you and your family ♥️
Thank you ! You put into words our thoughts and more. May God keep us all 850 strong. He has been good in spite of it all.
Amen and amen 🙏🏻
We have tried to donate but cannot find any organization that lets the donation be designated for the Callaway and Panama city area. It did at the beginning but now we are afraid to donate because we don’t know where the money will go. Could you find out and publish information on a regular basis for everyone.
I sure will. The United Way of Northwest Florida’s Hurricane Micheal Relief Fund stays local and they serve all of Northwest Florida. 100% of money donated stays here to help with local relief efforts. http://www.unitedwaynwfl.org
Thank you. I myself had to.get away from there. After loosing everything and living in a camper woth my wheelchairbound 89 year old mom that passed Jan 14th I felt it necessary for my mental health to leave. Starting over at 58 is hard.
I’m so sorry for your loss. May God bless and keep you as you begin this new chapter of your life. Prayers.
Thank you for the article. It pretty much says it all. I’m a survivor of the hurricane. Ileft before the game with my dog, my clothes. The government has refused to help so many. Myself included. The physical damage was and is hard, the psychologocal damage is worse. God bless us all.
God bless you! One day at a time. That’s really all we can do. Continued prayers.
Thank you for a great article. I appreciate reading the stats as well.
Places things in much needed perspective. Thank you!
A great article.
Appreciate it! #850strong
Wonderful article. Thank you so much for writing it. #850Strong
Thank you so much!
Great article.Thanks for writing.
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