We slowly emerged from the old church amazed at the damage of Hurricane Michael.
The landscape was surreal. Trees and power lines were down everywhere. There was so much damage that it was just hard to make sense of it all. The phrase ‘war zone’ kept getting passed around and rightfully so.
One man who stayed with us inside the concrete church said a tree had smashed his pickup. While our car didn’t fall victim to a tree, a large business sign from across the street smashed the back window and dented the door and roof. A piece of plastic from the sign was lodged behind our license plate. A police officer who stopped by the church later said that he had witnessed a tornado destroying a gas station nearby.
We were in Callaway, Fla., just east of Panama City where we experienced some of the strongest winds from the Category 4 hurricane. (The last National Hurricane Center report I saw on Oct. 10 reported max sustained winds at 155mph, just 2 mph shy of a Cat 5). While the eye may have passed over us, the worst of the damage was inflicted east of us in Mexico Beach where they were devastated by the northeast quadrant of the eye. So many homes and popular destinations for tourists and locals alike, including Toucans, were destroyed.
As of today the total death toll stands at 33 and that number is expected to rise. Drones found two more bodies in Mexico Beach this week. Debris now seemingly litters every inch of the once quiet and idyllic getaway that my family has visited for nearly 30 years.
God knows how many tornadoes came in with the storm. The roof of Good Shepherd’s family center, where the pets had been staying, was ripped off as the eye neared. A couple of people had volunteered to stay behind to tend to the animals. Thankfully, though soaking wet and rattled, all were physically okay.
The main church building, built in the early 1960s during the height of the Cold War by Harders Construction, had been constructed of reinforced concrete. Mr. Harders, a bridge builder at the time, used concrete bridge spans as its roof. Adding even more protection are earth embankments wrapping around the church from its north entrance all around its west side and a good portion of its east side.
I knew the building wasn’t going anywhere and I took comfort in that while my three kids and I huddled together in the choir storage room. We occasionally went upstairs to ground level to look at the storm. My Verizon cell service was still working at the time and I Tweeted pictures and videos while I could. A week later and Verizon is intermittent at best and my internet access is still limited to mobile hotspots and WiFi at a handful of businesses.
On the morning of the storm, the kids and I had been heading to Rutherford High School to take shelter. However, my daughter had been texting with her friend last minute who invited us to stay with her family at Good Shepherd. I immediately jumped on the offer. Years prior I had covered some stories at the church and learned then of its concrete bones. We would be safe there for sure and we were. Now there’s the cleanup and lots of it.
Since last Thursday, we’ve stayed busy with this strange, new life which includes cutting and removing endless downed trees. A massive heritage oak fell on our home in Parker, which is about a mile and a half from the church. When we first walked into our old brick home, we saw a branch sticking through our kitchen ceiling and the floor was flooded. The den next door was also soaking wet. The tree is so huge it’s amazing that it didn’t crush the entire home. The porch’s solid 10- x 10-inch columns appear to have taken a lot of the load. We can’t do much with that tree. Professionals will have to handle it.
One of the hardest parts of the storm was not knowing how my parents and 17-year-old son were doing. I let Josh stay behind to help his grandparents in Southport, which is about 10 miles northwest of Callaway as a crow flies. We all use Verizon so there was no way of getting in contact. AT&T and T-Mobile remain the only dependable carriers here.
Finally, the first bit of good news came in on Thursday morning the day after the storm as my two other boys and I were helping a crew clear trees off the road leading to our neighborhood. (Vehicle passage had been impossible and walking through a prickly maze of fallen trees had been the only way to get back home.) Two Parker police officers armed with assault rifles stopped to talk with our small work crew. I asked them about news on Lynn Haven and Southport. They said that while Lynn Haven had been badly damaged, most of what they had seen of Southport was fine. That definitely gave me hope.
After working a couple of hours to clear trees, the kids and I walked back to the house and began cleaning and preparing to stay the night. Recalling how Dad and I had stayed in touch following Hurricane Ivan, I set up the marine radio hoping to make contact. I had three fully charged 12-volt batteries and a generator at the ready to provide electricity.
Around 4 p.m. Thursday as I was hailing him from the back porch on channel 16, I heard someone calling out at the front door. I couldn’t quite make out the voice given all the static on the radio (I had turned down the squelch to get better contact.) Police had been patrolling the area and talking with residents so I figured it was them. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I was to see Dad and my 17-year-old son, Josh, walking into the wet den with an axe over his shoulder. That will forever rank as one of the best days of my life. We all headed over to Southport to where the roof on my parents’ home is intact and the cooking much better.
From that day on we’ve reverted back to somewhat of a 19th century life: no running water (up until yesterday), no phones and no air conditioning. We’re getting up early and working outside all day and going to bed about two to three hours earlier. I’ve been drying out my car for days. Glass shattered all over the interior. Fine bits of glass seem to be everywhere. I plugged the vacuum into the generator and cleaned it up. I also removed the upholstery from the seats to let it dry faster.
So many concerned people and government agencies have turned up to help here. A man and his friend drove all the way from Texas with a grill to treat folks to free hot dogs. They had set up in the parking lot of the Citgo gas station today in Southport where I happened across one of the more precious commodities: diesel fuel. Dad’s old Kubota generator is a reliable oil burner that’s been holding steady while powering the lights, fridge and box fans.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a box fan. My daughter made me smile when she began making funny voices with the fan. And I think I’ve just about got the old gas generator fixed which will allow us to use the washing machine. Yes, the journey back to a bustling 21st century life is challenging, but in the meantime, we’re making the most of the trip.