PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — As Hurricane Michael barrelled through Bay County News 13’s staff members and on-air talent worked right up until the point it was no longer possible. The storm shook the building, the roof buckled and it sounded as if a train was flying by us.
“I was just trying to breathe and relax because I knew the camera was going to come back on me and I needed to be calm at that moment,” Chief Meteorologist Ross Whitley recalled.
Eventually, the roof came off the First Baptist Church Building next door. Some of the metal landed on the WMBB building, slicing through the gas line that was supplying the generator. When the generator died, News 13 was off the air.
Management gathered all of the employees together into the newsroom where several news staff member launched a live report on facebook.com explaining what happened and that we were all safe. Afterward we stood in the newsroom, listening to the wind howling overhead and debris rolling over our roof. We comforted each as best we could, avoiding streams of water coming through the roof and falling ceiling tiles.
WMBB News Director Tom Lewis tried to calm nerves by promising we would all tell our grandchildren about this someday.
“Nobody’s dying here today folks,” he said.
It was a promise he kept.
Once the worst of the storm passed we evacuated the building
In the hours that followed, we began charting a path forward as our community and our station recovered. As others either worked to rebuild their homes, businesses and lives often times we ignored our own personal issues and continued telling your stories.
Just like the rest of the community staff members found themselves racing to find new places to live or sharing their homes with family members or co-workers. Each day we knew what our audience was facing because we too were dealing with FEMA, our insurance companies and contractors as we attempted to get our homes back.
As you can imagine, there were a lot of tears.
Anchor Amy Hoyt’s face was racked with emotion when she talked about her husband changing their storm plan and coming back to town to ride out the storm at the station with her. Her co-anchor, Jerry Brown, has an equally emotional moment talking about his family.
“During that time I’m thinking about my wife and daughter at home in Lynn Haven in a closet hoping and praying they’re good,” Brown said. “But just for a few seconds I had to get back doing the job providing the information for our folks out there.”
For News 13 Meteorologist Sam Lucey the tears flowed whenever she surveyed the damage.
“Whenever I would come back into Panama City I’d cross the Hathaway Bridge and it was like night and day,” Lucey said. “It was emotional every single time. I cried every morning.”
Even at its considerable length our story is only part of the story.
Our engineers along with Nexstar Corporate employees who came to help us cover the news and get the station back up and running in just a matter of days. Friends and family came to help including Reporter Peyton Locicero’s parents who brought food from their home in Destin and found other ways to assist the staff. And many of our co-workers and fellow survivors who could have been part of this story have since moved on to other jobs in other markets.
The considerable damage to our building is mentioned in passing but know that like many of you, News 13 employees have worked in an active construction zone for most of 2019. Most days the journalists who work here ignored personal issues and other problems to get the work done.
In those days more than one veteran could be heard encouraging other staff members.
“This is when people need us the most,” they said.
When you ask them the folks who work for News 13 will tell you that there has rarely been another time when the work mattered so much. And those of us who were out in the streets discovered once again why this is an amazing community.
“People standing in line with just a great attitude,” Hoyt recalled. “Telling story after story how their house was on the ground and yet they still had smiles on theIr face. That’s one of the reasons we live here.”
It is a year later and it is proper to look back, find out what we have learned, and see where the community is headed moving forward. We have made it this far but we still have a long road ahead.
“We’re all in this together,” Brown said. “We will get through this day and tomorrow and the weeks to come.”