PANAMA CITY — Less than 12 hours after the historic Hurricane Michael ripped a path through Bay County, residents began to emerge, inspect the damage and, in many cases, tally their losses.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” said Corina Gamble, who was just starting to clean up around her home. “And I’ve never been through anything like this. It’s terrible.”
Gamble said that while her home fared better than most, she, and many others, were not adequately prepared for the storm.
“We weren’t safe at all,” she said.
Similar scenes played out as the clouds finally broke Thursday morning, illuminating the nearly surreal scene of twisted metal and devastated buildings. Trees, stripped of their leaves, stood at odd angles, giving the impression of an atomic blast.
“The media keeps saying Bay County is resilient,” said Wayne Wright, who was in his friend’s living room when a tree fell on the home. “But this is going to need a miracle worker.”
'Worse than anything'
Hurricane Michael grew quickly, from a tropical depression to a Category 1 storm in less than 24 hours, then ballooned all the way up to a major Category 4 storm as it raced up from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico.
The aerial view of the region revealed a definitive delineation between the areas that were damaged and the areas that weren't.
Panama City revealed rows of houses in shambles and streets littered with the fragments. Giant trees appeared weightless, lying uprooted sideways on the ground.
In Mexico Beach, there was a definitive difference between the inland and beach properties. Most beach properties were destroyed or vanished, while many inland properties were damaged, but many still partially or fully intact. The city looked bare and desolate.
As of Thursday, it wasn't yet clear how folks had fared in the xx-mile swath devastated by the storm's highest winds.
Authorities had encouraged residents in designated evacuation zones to evacuate. Many said they either didn’t have time to prepare or didn’t believe it would be as bad as it was.
“We were adequately warned,” said Jeanette Allan. “We just didn’t think it would be that bad."
Allan was sitting in her recliner in her home Wednesday morning when a ceiling tile fell and hit her on the leg. Water began pouring into her home, but thankfully her bedroom was spared, and she retreated there for the night. Her walls were shaking, and two large oak trees fell in her yard and on her house, she said.
“It sounded like a freight train coming through,” she said. “I thought we were goners.”
Jayme Hotalen, a Lynn Haven resident, saw much damage in her neighborhood, including "totaled" two-story homes.
“We were in a no evacuation zone, and it got hit worse than anything,” Hotalen said. “We’ve got food. We don’t have any way to cook it. No water. There are a lot of poor old people down here who need prayers.”
After restoring power to all customers in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties, Gulf Power crews — with more than 3,000 storm personnel from across the country — are descending on the Panama City area to begin the restoration and rebuilding process. But, customers might not see the large bucket trucks with crews working on the streets until roads are cleared and safe.
“Our process following the storm begins with our evaluation teams arriving in smaller trucks that can more easily navigate through debris and damage,” said Gulf Power spokesperson, Jeff Rogers.
Path to recovery
The strength of Hurricane Michael could mean a rebuild of infrastructure, which may take weeks in the hardest hit areas.
With power out for likely at least a week in many areas, and spotty cell service with a major Verizon outage reported, residents are largely disconnected from each other and from the outside world. Some had no idea that scenes from all across Panama City and Panama City Beach had been playing out on national news and The Weather Channel all day Wednesday and Thursday.
The lack of awareness became apparent when Brent Shavnore, a Santa Rosa Beach resident, posted a video to Facebook of his drive through Panama City after the storm passed.
“One of the most heartbreaking things about this situation — after the video was posted — is the massive amounts of messages and emails I am getting from concerned family members who have not gotten in touch with their loved ones,” Shavnore said. “I’ve gotten over 100 messages from people asking me to check on their family members' house because they haven’t heard from them since noon (Wednesday).”
At least three deaths were blamed on Michael, the most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in more than 50 years, and it wasn't done yet. Although reduced to a tropical storm, it brought flash flooding to North Carolina and Virginia, soaking areas still recovering from Hurricane Florence.
Destin mayor and former longtime charter boat captain, Gary Jarvis, has reached out to his friends in the Panama City fishing fleet and the news isn’t good.
Some captains and crew were unaccounted for Thursday.
“We have some grave concerns,” Jarvis said. “I’ve got some friends I still cannot contact that stayed up in Watson Bayou and nobody’s heard from them.”
With many roads impassable and everyone disconnected, properties are vulnerable and reports of looters have surfaced, with some spotted near the Exxon station on Jenks Avenue, as well as 11th Street and 23rd Street, among others.
Homes weren’t the only buildings devastated. Numerous schools, including Jinks Middle School and Palm Bay Prep Academy on 11th Street and Balboa Avenue respectively, and churches such as St. Dominic Catholic Church and First Baptist Church of Panama City sustained major damage. Many businesses, too, were torn apart.
Brian Zerr, owners of Auto ER on 11th Street, took shelter in his shop with seven other people, four cats, three dogs and a parrot, thinking it would be safer than a home because it was up on cinder blocks. The building’s height, however, left it vulnerable to the worst of Michael’s winds and the roof was torn off in a matter of seconds.
“We’re determined to re-open,” Zerr said. “But it probably won’t be in this location.”
Stay off the roads
Emergency officials urge people to stay off the roads as much as possible, with roadblocks at US 231, SR 77 and SR 79. A dawn-to-dusk curfew is still in effect, as only relief crews and medical personnel affiliated with local hospitals are being allowed into the county. Gulf Power estimates it could be up to a week before power is restored.
According to Bay County Emergency Services, most roads in the county are impassable due to debris or water covering the roadway.
“It is imperative that residents stay put if possible,” Emergency Services wrote on its Facebook page. “Residents who evacuated should not return to Bay County until we advise that it is safe to do so. People on the roadway pose a significant impediment to our first responders’ ability to clear the roads. Please, stay put and standby.”
Bay County first responders will begin safety checks as soon as possible as they work to clear the roads. The Red Cross and Salvation Army will accept monetary donations, because the county is unable to accept any donations.
All of Bay County is under a mandatory boil water notice. The Verizon network is currently down, impeding communications at the Emergency Operations Center.
Schools used as shelters
Early Thursday morning, the Bay County School District updated its Facebook page.
“We don’t yet have a comprehensive list of damages to our schools because not all roads are navigable,” said an unnamed spokesman for the school district. “This is way above my pay grade but since I’m the one with access to communication, and some people seem desperate for official word, it’s safe to say we will not have school tomorrow.”
People are still using Bay County schools as shelters.
Later Thursday morning, the school district spokesman was able to get in touch with Superintendent William Husfelt for a brief time.
“He wants everyone to know that our hearts are with those who have suffered losses, many of them devastating, as a result of this hurricane and that everyone’s focus right now should be on taking care of their families,” the spokesperson posted to Facebook. “We do not yet have a timeline for returning to school because we have not been able to complete a damage assessment on our buildings let alone make plans for repairs.
Daily News reporters Dusty Ricketts and Alicia Adams contributed to this report.