There have only been four.
Only four recorded Atlantic storms have maintained category five strength as they barreled inland. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, with its maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, was the most intense to ever make landfall. It destroyed nearly all structures in the upper Florida Keys as it came ashore on the evening of September 3, 1935.
Hurricane Camille is the second-strongest hurricane to make landfall in the United States. Coming ashore just before midnight on August 17, 1969 along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with maximum sustained winds of 175 mph, Camille tore a path of total and utter destruction through the region, killing over 140 people with its extremely high storm surge and massive flooding. It was decades before the region fully recovered from the devastation.
Hurricane Andrew made landfall around Ellicott Key, Florida on August 24, 1992 with maximum sustained winds of 165 mph, making it the third strongest category five storm on record to hit the U.S. Andrew produced devastating damage across southern sections of Miami and nearly completely wiped Homestead, FL off the map. The damage total in Florida alone after Andrew was over $26 billion.
The most recent category 5 hurricane to devastate the Gulf Coast was Hurricane Michael, who made landfall in the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018 along the Panhandle of Florida. With maximum sustained winds of 161 mph, Michael’s eye came ashore near the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, FL, nearly eradicating its existence from the landscape. With its minimum central pressure of 27.13 inches, Michael also holds the distinction of being the third-most intense U. S. storm ever (behind Katrina, 2005, and Andrew, 1992). Hurricane Michael caused catastrophic damage from winds and storm surge in the Panama City, Mexico Beach, and Cape San Blas areas. Michael was directly responsible for at least 79 deaths, including 59 in the U.S. and 15 in Central America and over $53 billion in damage, including $5 billion in property damage in Florida alone and almost $4 billion to Florida’s forestry and farming communities.
An Eerie Silence
In the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael barreled into the Florida Panhandle altering our lives in ways we could never have imagined or prepared for. When we emerged from the shelters we had hurriedly taken, we were greeted with an eerie silence that was so total in its completeness that we were left with nothing but a devastating shock that shook us to our very core.
Over the course of the next few days, the stories began to emerge. Stories that broke our hearts while at the same time, inspiring and strengthening our resolve and determination to overcome the chaos all around us.
There were so many stories.
Like the emergency responder who dropped everything immediately after the winds died down, leaving his home to travel to the very center of the destruction in Mexico Beach only to return to his home days later to find that everything of value he’d left behind had been taken by looters.
The story of the young couple who sheltered in a three-story bank building near their townhome, only to be forced into a stairwell as the windows blew out all around them. Their saving grace was the dog leash they’d secured around the stairwell door to protect their pets. As the intense fury of Michael’s winds swept through the building, that leash kept the doors from blowing open, sparing their lives as well.
The story of the father and son who exchanged “I love you’s” during the height of the storm, fearing death was imminent as trees fell on their home and they wrestled valiantly to keep the doors closed against the wind while Mom used every pot and bucket available to keep the rain from flooding the interior. Or the story of the new parents forced to sleep in their car with their newborn infant after their home was totally destroyed and they had nowhere else to go. As Tony Simmons, a writer for the News Herald wrote a few days later, “We all became storytellers that day.”
A Mexico Beach resident, Scott Boutell, was close to tears as he spoke to a reporter in front of his wrecked house a few days after the storm: “Our lives are gone here. All the stores, all the restaurants, everything. There’s nothing left here anymore,” he said.The Guardian
Only the basics remained.
As the days and weeks began to blur and muddy, we were stripped to the very basics of survival. No power, phones, or internet meant no communication with the world outside. And no way for family members outside the Panhandle to know for certain if their loved ones were still among the living. No grocery stores, gas stations or drinkable water, meant we had to rely on the kindness of strangers and volunteers for our basic needs. Entire neighborhoods banded together to pool available resources and in some cases, to provide shelter for those who lost everything.
The arduous task of digging ourselves out of the destruction, literally, began as soon as equipment could be obtained. Rescue teams went door-to-door, combing through wreckage to check for survivors, helping to dig out those trapped, or to remove the deceased who had not been so lucky. Large red X’s began to appear on doors across the region, a way of marking that the dwelling had been checked and cleared. It was like moving through the set of one of those apocalyptic movies, only the set was real, and we were the bedraggled cast of shell-shocked, weary survivors.
And the eerie quiet remained pervasive.
In the immediate aftermath, 4,000 National Guard were deployed to assist the nearly 2,000 law-enforcement officials already on the ground in the area. Crews with dogs searched door-to-door in Mexico Beach, pushing aside debris to get inside badly damage structures.The Guardian
A strictly enforced dawn to dusk curfew was put in place to protect citizens, but also to deter looters from taking advantage of the plight of others.
Within a day, over 6,000 linemen descended on the area to get the decimated power-grid back on line as quickly as possible. It wouldn’t be quick. It would take over a month to restore the nearly one million homes and businesses affected throughout the region.
Work crews removed 31 million cubic yards of debris in Florida left by Hurricane Michael, compared to 3 million for Hurricane Irma, a much broader storm that affected the entire peninsula in 2017, according to T.J. Dargan, deputy federal coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hurricane Michael response and recovery effort, The Washington Post.
However, the aftermath still continues unabated. Our homeless numbers are on the rise as FEMA assistance begins to run out and more and more people are forced onto the streets. Livable properties are scarce, and supply and demand has caused rent prices to skyrocket, leaving many without any hope of shelter in the near future. Bay County Schools reports some 4,800 students, about 1 in 6, are living in temporary homes, a classification federal officials consider as homeless.
Down a country road in Bay County, Sam Summers, a heavy-equipment operator, and his wife, Sherry Skinner-Summers, who works with the sheriff’s department, have opened their five-acre lot to people whose houses and trailers were destroyed in the storm. The Summers and their donors provide tents to families and individuals who cannot find or afford hotel rooms or apartments and pass a background check.The Washington Post
A day-to-day struggle.
Many of the lingering effects of the storm are more intangible. We are visibly fatigued, with stress, anxiety, and depression affecting us more and more. The constant and ever-present reminders of the storm are a blow to our psyche and a punch to the gut every single day.
During all this time, while we have been focused on survival, recovery, and healing, doing all we can to stand on our own, we never anticipated that some of our greatest frustrations and heartache would come at the hands of those we believed we could rely on most to assist us.
If [Federal] funding isn’t passed soon, repair work on Tyndall Air Force Base, which is estimated to make up a third of Bay County’s economy, will grind to a halt on May 1, hurting both the local area and military readiness. Also in jeopardy are repairs to the local VA medical facilities, the U.S Coast Guard facility repairs and federal dollars for the schools, according to Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s office.Government Technology – Emergency Management
That the world quickly moved on and donations for Hurricane Michael relief have fallen well-short of those for previous storms and disasters hurt, yes, but we could understand that. We knew from the beginning that we were not the only natural disaster affecting the country. Other regions, most notably the victims of the wildfires that burned though California, are also in need of assistance.
No. What has sickened us most as the weeks turn into months, is the partisan politics in Washington that have hampered the passage of the relief bill we so desperately need. As lawmakers continue to spar over the details of the supplemental disaster funding bill, we, and all the other disaster affected regions in the country continue to suffer. We are doing our best, but it’s a day-to-day struggle. In truth, we are still living in a war zone.
“If this hurricane had gone through Central Florida, South Florida, the dollars would have been there by now,” said state Agricultural Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried. “People are out there struggling every day — people whose entire life savings, entire college fund, is basically lying on the ground.”The Washington Post
There are still trees resting on structures. There are still blue tarps covering damaged roofs. There are still pieces of plywood covering windows. There are still piles of rubble in parking lots and in neighborhoods where structures once stood. People are still living in tents. Others have lost all hope and are leaving the area for good.
Every day you hear stories of shady contractors taking advantage of desperate, weary people. Of battles with insurance companies leaving victims with scant resources to make much-needed repairs to homes and businesses. You wonder what it’s like to live in the aftermath of a category 5 hurricane?
It’s hell. And until Washington puts aside their partisan bickering and passes the aide package so desperately needed, the flames just continue to rise.
© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Panama City, FL resident and Author, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle