From SEMA to humbling hurricane drama

Quimby Mug Bayou Florida Headshot

It was pretty strange leaving SEMA in Las Vegas where the nation’s best vehicles are on display and heading back to Panama City, Fla. where so many vehicles—including my own—were damaged and even destroyed by Hurricane Michael.

Two completely different worlds: the highly polished and presentable versus the highly devastated and unbelievable. Seriously, it’s been over three weeks and it’s still mind-boggling to see all the snapped trees and power poles, wrecked homes, businesses, cars, trucks and trailers.

Seems like with every drive we take we’re surprised by someone else’s mangled property that we hadn’t seen during the last trip.

Yes, it takes weeks and even months to clean up a mess this big. So in the meantime you just have to accept it and make the most of it. My family’s safe and that’s what matters most. Property can always be repaired or replaced.

On that note, this week I’ll be taking some time off to tackle cleaning up around our house. Huge heritage oaks dating back to God knows when fell down in our yard and hit our home, sheds and boat. (The back window on our car was blown out by a business sign.)

I had no idea that Oct. 9 would be the last day we would be staying in our home. We’ve been there for nearly 20 years, but such is life in hurricane country. I actually grew up in Southern California where earthquakes and wildfires remain ongoing concerns. A neighbor and I here in Panama City joked after the storm that we might be safer in Arizona where cities don’t make headlines for being thoroughly devastated by natural disasters.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve had plenty of encouraging moments around here: neighbors helping neighbors to clear roads of downed trees; watching the trucks drive in on a daily basis to help with rebuilding; managing without cell service by using old two-way radios (Verizon towers were down); shopping at Publix in Lynn Haven just a few days after the storm; hot showers following plenty of cold ones; coming across open fueling stations with gas and diesel; fixing a generator that hasn’t run in 18 years; and now debris trucks. I don’t care that they choke off roads and stop traffic. They’re hauling off tons of piles in front of homes and businesses that serve as constant reminders of this historic beating.

While we’re thankful that power and water is back on, we’re still scrambling for data. My work relies on a strong internet connection with gobs of data which I no longer have. At SEMA I was grateful for WiFi where I could send loads of video to our editor in Alabama who quickly cranked out one clip to the next. It was great.

But now I’m back in data-starved Panama City where thousands of us hunt for WiFi hotspots. My son and I were so excited to see a WiFi sign at Home Depot in Panama City Beach (the city directly west of Panama City; bays separate the two) Sunday that their sales flyer became a distant afterthought which is a total change in routine for me.

Another change are the data battles between the kids. They were doing absolutely fine with their shared phone plan before the hurricane, but now not so good. Anyone caught on Facetime, Instagram or watching video is a target for a tongue lashing.

Calling cable companies to find out about internet restoration times reminds me of Hawking’s bleak prediction of how we’re on the road to becoming totally subservient to technology. Every call I placed, no matter the number I pressed on the keypad, led to a recording of some kind with a daisy chain of options that led me back to the original recording.

My dad finally got through to a person by selecting ‘disconnect service.’ Smart move. A representative told him that internet service should be back up by Thanksgiving. We’ll see.

In the meantime I’m relying on a stingy mobile hotspot that provides a humble gateway to the internet. That’s the whole thing about this hurricane. It was not only humbling to watch, it’s still humbling living with its aftermath over three weeks later. Having lived in Florida for 20 years, I’ve been through other storms, but nothing like this. It reminds you of how fragile life can be. One moment your city is fine and the next it looks like it was hit by bombs. It’s surreal, but you dig in, make the most of it and celebrate victories along the way, even if it’s a small WiFi sign posted outside a store.