Keep your head up Panama City. A feat that has proven much harder as the weeks since Michael have turned into months. Image by Sharon Owens

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.

This destroyed bank building on 23rd Street in Panama City, FL proved to be no shelter at all for those trapped inside during the height of the storm. Image by Rebekah Nelson.

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.

Destruction and debris left in Mexico Beach, Florida after Hurricane Michael as emergency first responders and National Guard comb the area door-to-door for survivors. Image by Brandon Perdue/iStock.

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.

Linemen from all over the country, 6,000 in all, traveled to the affected region to help get the over one million customers without power back on line. Image by Jennifer Fenwick.

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.

Sights like the one above are rampant throughout the area. Image by Jennifer Fenwick

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

Nothing could’ve prepared us. Not for this. Though we did prepare. We boarded up our windows. Stocked up on supplies. Safeguarded our valuables. But this time would be so much different than those that had come before. Pretty soon, all we had left were our prayers. And our fervent hope that we’d still be alive when it was over.

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.

Within hours the potential Category 3 impact had grown into a nightmare of monster proportions. We awoke on Wednesday, October 10, to a very different situation than the one we had gone to bed with the night before. There would be nowhere to hide from Michael. It was too late to try to evacuate so we rushed to get to safety or hunkered down where we were, hoping, praying for a miracle.

“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.”

Michael makes his way onshore in the Florida Panhandle during the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018. At almost Category 5 strength, Michael’s 155-mph sustained winds and over 15-ft. storm surge, obliterated the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, FL.
I shot this image with my cell phone around 11:15 AM on October 10, from the foyer windows of the Panama City Surgery Center, where my family and I were sheltering with other employees and their loved ones. During the height of the storm, we could hear transponders exploding all around us, metal being ripped from the roof of the structure, trees snapping, and limbs and other debris barreling into the building. Some of the worse moments occurred as the barometric pressure bottomed making our ears and heads pound. There were moments when it felt like the walls were actually breathing and the building was shifting on its foundation. At one point the foyer doors were breached by the intensity of the wind.

On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall at approximately 12:15 p.m. along the Florida Panhandle. A deadly Category 4 storm (just two miles shy of Category 5 strength) with sustained winds of 155-mph, gusts reaching a staggering 185-mph, and a minimum central pressure of 919 millibars, Michael made his presence known as the third strongest hurricane on record to hit the U.S.

In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle | Jennifer N. Fenwick

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 went from a tropical storm to a projected CAT 3 at landfall in six hours yesterday. It’s not behaving normally. It 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.”

As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare. “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. It looked as if a bomb had gone off and the silence was eerie. All we could see everywhere we looked was downed trees, all the trees. Those that did still stand looked like barren twigs. Most every house in view had fallen trees on their roofs, in their yards, on their fences. They were everywhere. We walked around like zombies. We saw the destruction, but just couldn’t comprehend it.”


Jane Smith, like many, ended up losing her home to Michael and is now living in a trailer provided by FEMA as she awaits rebuilding. She took this image a few days after the storm. “Seeing the devastation now,” she remarked, “It’s truly a miracle we survived.”
You can read Smith’s entire story and the poetry she wrote following the storm in the book, In the Eye of the Storm, to which she is a contributing author.

Search and recovery began immediately with teams from around Florida deployed to the Panhandle. In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town. Authorities say it could be months, even years, before anything approaching “normal” returns to the region.

Image by Jennifer Fenwick

“This morning, Florida’s Gulf Coast and Panhandle and the Big Bend are waking up to unimaginable destruction,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday morning. “So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything. … This hurricane was an absolute monster.”

Doyle Rice | USA Today

In the first few weeks following the storm, residents in the Florida Panhandle struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who returned, once allowed, are still 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.

Like the felled trees, power poles were snapped by the 155-mph wind, lines were down everywhere, and substations were damaged leaving over 800,000 residents without power across the region. Linemen from all over the country worked 16-hour days trying to restore power. In all, about 6,000 tree service and line workers were deployed to the area within a matter of hours, The Pensacola News Journal reported.

As the days, weeks and months have passed, the initial shock and focus on survival have given way to grief and frustration as we learn to navigate our way through this strange new world. There are reminders of that day everywhere we look. There’s just no escaping the carnage. There are deep scars on our landscape and deeper ones carried within.

Property damage in the impacted region is estimated at over $5 billion dollars. The current housing crisis is compounding problems as residents who lost everything have nowhere to go. One local woman has opened up her property to victims of Michael who now, through no fault of their own, find themselves without shelter. Images like this home in the Cove area of Panama City, by Terry Kelly, are common place throughout the region.

For weeks after Michael, we were cut off from the world outside. Internet and cell phone service, like the power, was completely wiped out. When the power poles fell, they took the internet and cable lines with them. In addition, the major cell phone carrier in the area suffered extensive damage to their towers and network cables, all of which were above ground. It was months before services like cable, internet, cell phones, and wifi were restored.

We sort of got used to being cut off. Unfortunately, once we were able to connect with the outside world, we quickly realized that it had moved on without us.

Image by Tony Miller

The Tampa Bay Times posted an article that brings into stark and upsetting reality how little is being done outside our storm-ravaged area to assist with recovery and rebuilding. The road ahead is a long and rough one for the afflicted region. We cannot do this alone.

“Hurricane Michael was a major disaster, but big donors haven’t treated it as one,” the article states.

According to Emily L. Mahoney in a Times/Herald Tallahassee article, “The Panhandle’s low profile meant the media attention came and went, so the disaster never drew the major corporate donations that other storms did. That’s a harsh reality — just like the conditions in which thousands of Floridians still find themselves living more than four months after the storm struck. Tarps on roofs. Families living in tents. People taking refuge in their cars.”

According to the Times/Herald analysis of contributions to three prominent national charities, donations to Hurricane Michael recovery fall far below donations for recent landmark hurricanes to hit the South such as Florence, Irma, and Harvey.

The level of damage left behind by Hurricane Michael is catastrophic. According to Mahoney, “Those who felt the full force of Michael were in Florida’s Panhandle, where state officials estimate property damage at more than $5 billion. That’s more than Irma. Yet somehow, at least nationally, Hurricane Michael is not even a topic of conversation.”

Destruction to the timber and forestry industries throughout the impacted region is estimated at over $1.3 billion. “This is a catastrophic loss to the forestry industry,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam H. Putnam. Image by David Herring.

“Georgia has long led in the production of several renowned commodities and now we have the dubious distinction of also leading in the devastation and incredible loss of these prominent crops,” Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in a statement. “These are generational losses that are unprecedented and it will take unprecedented ideas and actions to help our farm families and rural communities recover.”

Jennifer Brett | The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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.

The powerful storm flattened trees, demolished crops and destroyed chicken coops throughout southwest and middle Georgia. Agriculture industry losses could reach nearly $3 billion, according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and Georgia Forestry Commission.

Jennifer Brett | The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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).

Downed trees are seen from the air at Tyndall Air Force base in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael near Mexico Beach, Fla. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

While post-storm analysis is still being performed and the argument surrounding upgrading Michael to CAT 5 is ongoing, the facts remain, this storm was a monster bringing widespread, apocalyptic destruction to the Florida Panhandle and further inland, that will take years to heal.

Nearly five months after Hurricane Michael ravaged the Florida Panhandle, economic setbacks and delays have made recovery increasingly difficult for Florida Panhandle residents trying to rebuild their homes, and their lives.


Allie Raffa, | Fox News, February 28, 2019

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.

© Jennifer N. Fenwick

Hurricane Michael at a Glance

LANDFALL: Michael made landfall at 12:15 p.m. local time on October 10, near Mexico Beach, FL
 
STRENGTH: High-end CAT 4 with sustained wind speeds at 250 KM/H or 155-MPH; Minimum central pressure, 919 MB. The Florida Panhandle took the brunt of Michael’s fury, suffering apocalyptic damage as the storm peeled off rooftops, uprooted and snapped trees in half, destroyed homes and businesses, and caused extensive flooding.
 
HISTORICAL: Michael was the strongest storm to ever come ashore in the Florida Panhandle, as well as the first CAT 4 to make landfall in the area. Michael was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Camille, who in 1969, made landfall along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with 174-MPH peak winds and a storm surge of 24.6 FEET recorded in Pass Christian, MS.
 
STRONGEST WINDS OBSERVED: Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida recorded winds gusts reaching 224 KM/H or 139-MPH.
 
STORM SURGE: Apalachicola, FL recorded storm surge reaching 8.5 FEET.  Near Mexico Beach, where the eye passed, National Weather Service buoy measured waves greater than 30-FEET before it stopped working.
 
OTHER FACTS: The death toll in Florida has risen to 35 in Florida and 45 overall, with at least 10 deaths reported in other states. Property damage following Michael is estimated at more than $5 billion. Damage to Florida’s forestland is currently estimated at $3 billion.

There will never be another Hurricane Michael. The name was retired following the 2018 Hurricane Season due to the storm’s catastrophic intensity.
Arial image of Mexico Beach, Florida following Michael (Associated Press/AP)

The panhandle of Florida is home to not only the World’s Most Beautiful Beaches, but also to many gorgeous natural springs abundant with local wildlife. My daughter, Emma and her boyfriend, Jason, spend most every weekend exploring these locations, capturing their trips in pictures and video for their YouTube channel, Paddle Blues.

Last weekend Jason and Emma set off to explore Sylvan and Cypress Springs. As usual, they captured their adventure in video and photography. Most of the Springs they visit in the area are within driving distance from Panama City and perfect for a day trip.

Although rainfall can sometimes cloud the water making visibility low, they typically snorkel and have captured many underwater photos using their GoPro. They are always on the lookout for little known or less visited areas to add to their growing list of favorite locations.

Cypress Springs photo by Jason DavisThe areas they visited this past weekend hold two of the “must go to” springs on their list of favorites. Cypress Springs runs into Holmes Creek in Northwest Florida. According to Cypress Springs Adventures, “Cypress Springs is one of the most beautiful springs in Northwest Florida, boasting a strong current, lush banks and deep sapphire waters. the spring discharges from two vents in the limestone boulders at the bottom of the spring pool. Approximately 150 feet with a maximum depth of 29 feet, the large surface boil is visible over both vents. The cool, clear water is a constant 68 degrees Fahrenheit. The banks surrounding the pool are heavily vegetated with cypress and tupelo trees.”

The sapphire waters can only be navigated via canoe or kayak, but you can enjoy snorkeling, swimming and scuba diving as you explore the natural habitat of the area.

Sylvan Springs is located along State Road 20 in Bay County and boasts a newly renovated recreation area that supports activities such as picnicking, swimming, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, and hiking. Sylvan Springs is located at the southern end of Econfina Creek.

Sylvan Springs consists of several vents on the west side of the Creek. A spring vent emerges from beneath a submerged limestone ledge into a 40-foot diameter pool. Maximum depth measured at the vent is 12 feet but the conduit extends further and downward. There is a large surface boil. A number of ancillary vents are scattered along the west bank.

Econfina Creek Unnamed Spring by Jason DavisThis past weekend the pair located an Undocumented Spring as they explored along Econfina Creek. They contacted the Northwest Florida Water Management District, who owns and manages the land, sending them coordinates and images. Once the District has taken discharge measurements, observed and confirmed the spring, Jason and Emma will get to name it. At present they’re thinking, Moccasin Spring since a large water moccasin prevented them from exploring past the first vent! We’ll see how that goes!

Econfina Creek Unnamed Spring by Jason Davis

Visit their YouTube channel, Paddle Blues, for video of their adventures and to see what they name the new spring!

If you’re ever in Northwest Florida, make it a point to visit one or two of these beautiful locations. The experience is certainly worth the time!

Jennifer Nelson Fenwick (© 2018)