PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) Survivors learned countless lessons from Hurricane Michael.
Evacuation is better than living through it. MREs are tasty when there is nothing else to eat. Some insurance policies aren’t worth the paper they are printed on.
And, traffic sucks.
“I had to leave my house by 4:45 a.m. in order to get to the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) or over to Mosley by 7. If I left by 5 a.m. I was going to sit in 3 hours of traffic and it was awful,” said Sharon Michalik, the public information officer for Bay District Schools.
During and after the storm Michalik was part of a team of public information officers who were working to share important information with the media, various governments, relief organizations, and the survivors.
And, because of the failure of the communication systems after the storm, most people stuck in traffic couldn’t return calls on their cell phones or do other work by phone. Michalik said she likes to be productive all the time but that was impossible thanks to the black hole of Hurricane Michael traffic
“It was absolutely a nothing burger,” she said.
Michalik left her home on the west end of Panama City Beach every morning and eventually reached the bottleneck of the Hathaway Bridge where traffic basically stopped as thousands of people tried to cross into Panama City during the morning and evening rush hours.
But the bridge wasn’t the only place where the traffic came to a standstill. Most every road into and out of Bay County turned into a parking lot for hours each day.
It didn’t get much better once you got into town. Trips that used to take 15 minutes now took an hour or an hour-and-half.
“I discovered the thing I hated the most in life was sitting in traffic,” Michalik said.
Because of the obvious and ongoing problem traffic following the storm, local cities, counties and the Florida Department of Transportation are working to solve these issues before another hurricane threatens our area. The completion of the westbound Hathaway Bridge flyover project this year helps, allowing for more traffic to flow smoothly out of Panama City.
But some officials believe there are still problems.
“It (Hurricane Michael) created a conundrum that will no doubt be created again,” said Mark Bowen, Bay County’s Emergency Services Chief.
Bowen pointed out that the problem was not just a roadway issue. Contractors, insurance agents, debris haulers, and others all needed to come into the county each day and because there were almost no hotels open they had to leave the county each night.
There are other factors that must be considered as well, said Ian Satter, a public information officer for Florida’s Department of Transportation. After the storm the power was out for two weeks, all the traffic signs and lights were down and communication was nearly impossible for everyone.
“Our ability to control traffic is severely hampered,” Satter said. “You just can’t calculate that type of thing when a once in a generation type storm comes through.”
While there may have been more traffic in town there was barely more traffic trying to cross the Hathaway Bridge after the storm, Satter said.
The DOT reports that about 66,600 vehicles crossed the bridge on October 8, 2018. On October 13, that number had dropped to 43,785. And, while the number did rise it wasn’t that much more than a normal day, topping out on November 27, at 78,543.
“We have got to get them north, get them away from the coast,”Ian Satter, Florida Department of Transportation
Even if building more roadways and bridges would fix the problem the costs would be astronomical.
“We can’t staff government functions based on Cat 5 events like that. The taxation would be overwhelming and honestly, it would be a waste of resources,” Bowen said.
As a once in a generation event Bay County shouldn’t need to worry about another Hurricane Michael for about 50 years.
However, lesser storms strike with more frequency. Hurricane Opal, a category 4 storm, struck The Panhandle in 1995. Hurricane Ivan, was a category 3 (it had been a category 5 until it weakened prior to landfall), hit Gulf Shores, Ala. and created tornado damage in Bay County in 2004. Then, Hurricane Michael struck in 2018.
And while the traffic after the storm has not been a priority, Florida’s Department of Transportation has been working on evacuation routes in the coastal communities since Opal. During that evacuation, traffic was stalled when four-lane highways narrowed down to single lanes. In response, DOT has focused on widening the evacuation routes that lead to the interstate.
In Bay County, they are widening Highway 79 from Highway 20 to Interstate 10 and Highway 77 from Highway 20 to Interstate 10. The state also widened evacuation routes in Walton, Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties. The next phase in Bay is widening Highway 231 from four to 6 lanes from Highway 98 to State Road 20. The state is already acquiring property and hoping to fund the project over the next 10 years.
When a storm is on the way, “we have got to get them north, get them away from the coast,” Satter said.
Opal taught other lessons. Contractors who are working on roadways during hurricane season must have a plan to restore those roadways and move traffic through within 24 hours, Bowen said. That means motorists won’t encounter construction that turns a four-lane highway into a two-lane when they are racing to escape a storm.
Prior to Opal emergency management officials were concerned the “community was developing faster than we can move people out of our county,” Bowen said. That is not the case anymore. That has been replaced with a new concern: Convincing people they need to leave when the county urges residents to evacuate.
That could become an issue in the place where the impacts of Hurricane Michael were not really felt: Panama City Beach.
“I think it is real easy for folks who live here to forget that the beach is an island and it is only accessible by bridge,” Bowen said.
Those who don’t evacuate are gambling they can survive on the supplies they have, with no medical attention for several days, if not weeks, he added.
They are “going to wind up being isolated if they don’t leave,” Bowen said.