PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — Hurricane Opal smashed into the Panhandle and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and upended thousands of lives.
The killer storm was a tragedy for many but also a teachable moment for local leaders who changed the way they handled hurricanes when the immediate crisis passed.
To understand the impact of the storm one must consider that Panama City Beach in 1995 was much different than the Panama City Beach of today. In 1995, the city was a mixture of small beachfront hotels and homes. The town of 10,000 people relied on the three summer holidays and essentially shut down for most of the year.
“We were a very old beach resort before Opal,” said Mike Thomas. Thomas was one of those business owners and had not yet begun a political career that saw him become a Bay County Commissioner and ultimately mayor of Panama City Beach.
At first Hurricane Opal did not seem like a major threat.
“I mean four days before it was just a mess of clouds,” said News 13 News Director Tom Lewis. Lewis was an anchor for News 13 during Hurricane Opal. “There wasn’t much to it. And then all of sudden it formed and headed straight to us.”
Then the storm began to strenghthen.
“If you don’t feel comfortable in your house then leave,” Jerry Tabbatt, News 13s meteorologist warned. “We’ve got a very dangerous storm lurking on our doorstep and it’s moving at us and we need to treat this as one of the most dangerous things we’ve seen in the Gulf.”
Current Bay County Manager Bob Majka, was the second in command at the emergency operations center during Opal. The night before the storm was set to hit he got an alarming phone call from the National Hurricane Center.
The storm was much stronger than first thought, rapidly strengthening from a Category 2 to a Category 4 and barrelling down on the Panhandle. For a time, it looked like it might become a Category 5.
Cell phones were just starting to become popular. The internet barely existed, and emergency leaders said they had no choice but to wait until the morning before they could tell people to evacuate.
“We lost probably 24 hours of time we needed to have people move and then we had people that got on the road and then the roadways all throughout the Panhandle became jammed,” Majka said. “And knowing from my training and my experience that mathematically it was just it was not going to work.”
Banks, gas stations and roadways were swamped by people and vehicles. Those who could get out did and those who chose to stay hunkered down and nervously watched the storm.
Panama City Beach City Manager Richard Jackson rode out the storm inside the old city hall.
“The building stood up pretty well but it sure rattled a lot and shook a lot,” Jackson recalled. “I said the next day, ‘I won’t do that again.'”
Lewis said the station’s tower cam was pointed at the roof while he was on air.
“I wondered as we were sitting here watching the roof peel off maybe we should have left,” Lewis said. “Maybe we shouldn’t have stuck around.”
When the storm passed journalists and emergency workers got their first clear view of the heartbreaking damage.
“We were pretty surprised at how bad it was,” said News 13 Anchor Amy Hoyt. “We knew it was going to be bad but to see it visually of course the next day the sun is always shining after the storm. It was like nothing ever happened to mother nature. And so to see that it, it was frightening.”
Jackson walked outside to see that much of his town was destroyed.
“When daylight came I looked out the back door and my heart sank,” he said. “I went down Front Beach Road and in both directions you could see nothing but debris and the roadway was covered up.”
Lewis was one of the first journalists to report back from Panama City Beach.
“It was just the most eerie, strange sights I had ever seen,” he said. “There was the whole back end of this house had been torn out you could see right into it. and I was looking into the kitchen of this house the cabinet doors were open and every plate was stacked in there perfectly they weren’t broken or anything else. All the china was sitting there or the daily plates, all the plates were just sitting there perfectly stacked in this house that had been wrecked.”
While Panama City Beach suffered a serious hit there was also flooding in other parts of Bay County. Lynn Haven resident Fran Schofield let News 13 reporters into her deeply damaged home shortly after the storm.
“We’ve been married 30 years and it’s everything we’ve built and worked for for 30 years is just ruined,” she said. Then, she added that her husband reminded her they still had each other.
The extent of the damage and concerns about looting led to what officials now say was a major mistake. Roadways back into town were blocked to everyone, including angry residents who wanted to get back home.
County leaders worried about downed power lines and other damage and kept people out in hopes of protecting them.
“So they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t go home,” Hoyt said. “They didn’t understand the scope of it. Wires were down, trees were down, homes were crushed.”
Emergency workers also wanted to clear the debris before the roadways became flooded with motorists.
“The gawkers, I wish they’d just get off the road,” a frustrated debris hauler told News 13 after the storm. “Because they are slowing our operation down. We can only get 10 miles an hour to get to the dump and we gotta go like five miles to dump this stuff and it’s holding us up.”
The problems led to major changes. No longer would emergency workers stop homeowners from re-entry once the roads were clear.
“We heard the public loud and clear after Opal,” Majka said.
After the storm, the community came together.
“I think that goodness and kindness has been here my entire life,” Hoyt said. “So I saw it then and we saw it again with Michael. The spirit is always the same.”
The storm was the first sign of major changes coming to Panama City Beach.
“That was a different time then,” Thomas said. “All of our hotels were local. our restaurants were local. Panama City Beach has become a chain location now. Big money has found out they can make money here and you don’t have the personal interest between one business and the other that you used to. I think that’s a shame that there’s not the community feel that there used to be between businesses. I miss that.”
But the storm also brought positive changes and a stronger infrastructure.
“It was a bad deal that made us better,” Thomas said. “Most everything that happens bad to us helps us. While I don’t want another one I know if we get one we’ll improve.”