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Hurricane Michael, 1 year later: Countdown to catastrophe

PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Hurricane Michael destroyed homes and businesses and killed 74 people as it crashed through the Panhandle of Florida and into Georgia Oct. 7, 2018 through Oct. 16, 2018

With the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Michael approaching, parts of the Panhandle remained broken with damaged, with empty buildings visible.

Panama City’s mall remained mostly shut down. One of its hospitals had massive layoffs and entire shopping complexes were shuttered and not rebuilt. Many homes were severely damaged and abandoned, and in some neighborhoods, residents were still living in campers or FEMA trailers, waiting for their homes to be repaired or struggling to find a new place to live — reminiscent of a ghost town in an old western.

Meanwhile, other parts of the area were thriving, with new businesses rushing to fill the void, and older businesses returning to work, determined to soldier on.

Hurricane Michael began, as these things do, with a strong breeze. This one, a tropical weather system in the Caribbean on Oct. 2, 2018, was given less than a 20% chance of developing within the next five days.

By Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, the NWS believed the system had a 70% chance of developing. The storm was out there and it was moving towards the Panhandle, but it was not yet viewed as the catastrophic threat it would become. That night, the biggest story in the area was a large red tide bloom that had resulted in a massive fish kill in Mexico Beach.

Mayor Al Cathey was proud of the work the city had done to clean up the area’s canals and return the area back into the tourist city it had always been.

“You see what we have here now,” Cathey said as he pointed to the clean canals. “Something we could live with.”

Ultimately, Hurricane Michael made landfall in Bay County as a Category 5 storm, but the massive, deadly winds the area would face were not on the radar, even as late as Sunday night.

The National Hurricane Center forecasted 100 miles per hour winds. That would make it a solid Category 2 storm. Only one model predicted that it would be a Category 4 storm. That model was discounted.

On Monday morning, the track of the storm, if not the intensity, was clear. Hurricane Michael was headed to the Panhandle. A line formed at Home Depot at 5:30 a.m. The store opened at 6 a.m. and sold out of generators in 15 minutes. Residents scrambled to buy water and food and long lines appeared at local gas stations.

Governor Rick Scott and Bay County Emergency Management officials held a joint news conference and warned residents of the imminent danger.

“Remember, we can rebuild your house, but we cannot rebuild your life,” Scott said.

For many, the track of the storm reminded them of the similar path of Hurricane Opal. Opal, a Category 4 storm, caused severe damage in Panama City Beach after it made landfall on Oct. 4, 1995.

Local resident Maria Carr said she wasn’t taking any chances.

“I lost my home to Hurricane Opal,” she said.

Local officials also encouraged people to evacuate. Once the storm made landfall, emergency services would be cut off and those who stayed behind would be on their own.

“If you need help, we won’t be able to help you,” said Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki.

In Mexico Beach, law enforcement officers went door to door to urge residents to leave. Those that stayed were told to write information on their arms so that their bodies could be identified after the storm. Much of the town of 1,100 left.

However, the effort to get residents to evacuate the rest of Bay County did not succeed. Although 120,000 people were in an evacuation zone, local officials estimated that, at most, only 30,000 left the area.

“We just are concerned people are not taking this seriously,” Sheriff Tommy Ford said as the storm continued to build strength in the Gulf. “It is not like any other storm we have seen in the last 10 or 20 years.”

Just as they had warned, law enforcement officers and medical professionals were not able to help people during and after the storm. The county’s 911 operators were overwhelmed with cries for help, but all they could do was offer counselings and medical tips. No one was coming. In truth, thanks to the mountain of downed trees and power lines, no one could come to help.

“People were debating if there were tornadoes,” Ford said. “I felt like we were in a 50-mile wide tornado.”

Ford and dozens of others shared what they went through and what they learned from Hurricane Michael. Survivors spoke of losing homes, jobs, businesses, and even loved ones during the disaster.

A year later, communities devastated by Hurricane Michael had only just begun to heal.

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