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SPECIAL REPORT: First Responder Stories of the Storm

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Hurricane Michael was a devastating category 4 storm that will never be forgotten. For those in the direct path of the storm who didn’t evacuate, their lives were forever changed. 

For the first responders working during the Hurricane, it was like nothing they had ever done before. While Hurricane Michael was still a mere tropical storm forming in the Gulf, first responders in the Panhandle were busy preparing for whatever troubles the storm would bring. 

“We were out in the community trying to warn people to get to safety and trying to make contact with homeless people who didn’t have shelter and get them to the shelters,” said Panama City Police Office, Shannon Chaix.  

Officer Shannon Chaix said this was her first time dealing with a Hurricane. She worked the night before doing whatever she could to get people ready for the storm. Other officers were stationed strategically all over town, and it was all hands on deck. 

“We separated throughout the city so that worst case scenario we were divided then we can actually be in strategic areas throughout the city and not have to worry about getting to different areas in the city because we were already there,” said Panama City Police Department Corporal, Jordan Hoffman.

Hoffman was placed at Bay Medical Center and he said he wasn’t alone. As the night progressed, more residents came in seeking shelter but little did they know, Bay Medical wouldn’t hold up to the high-speed winds. 

“A lot of people were coming in as it was getting worse and they were just trying to find somewhere because they figured the hospital was going to be the safest place,” said Hoffman.

The building began to flood and fall apart around them but Hoffman, an officer sworn to protect and serve, did just that and put his personal life on hold to help those who had sought shelter at Bay Medical. 

“We’re here and we’ve got to do a job but I didn’t know what to expect, I don’t think anybody did,” said Hoffman. Over at the Bay County Jail, Major Rick Anglin, the warden of the jail, said he saw similar behavior from his staff. 

“When you have a situation like this, you see a lot of people step up and they put their personal life aside,” said Anglin. 

The jail had about 40 to 50 family members of the staff staying in the administration building during and after Hurricane Michael. Properly staffing the jail was one of the biggest preparations. 

“For several days after the Hurricane, we had people sleeping here. They would find an office and lay down and sleep for a few hours then get up and go back to work,” said Anglin. The warden ensured they had enough people to work during and after the storm as well as crews to help clear the road. 

The entrance to the jail was covered in downed trees immediately following the storm, but jail staff and crews were able to have the road cleared by nightfall. The actual structure of the jail did not suffer any severe damage, most of the issues were with systems.

“This is pre-cast concrete, walls, and ceilings if there’s any place to be in Bay County during this kind of a storm, this is one of the places to be. We suffered virtually no structural damage here. It all had to do with systems. We lost air conditioning units and some fencing from outbuildings but structurally this building, the entire jail, was structurally sound,” said Anglin. 

Anglin said they had lost power early into the storm but had a massive generator that ran until the main power was restored about a week later. 

Over in Jackson County, officials said they didn’t think the storm would be as serious as it was. “I can remember vividly him putting a sign on the City Hall door saying that we’re going to be closed on October the 10th, an I guess re-open on October 11th… but low and behold, the rest is history,” said Marianna Police Chief, Hayes Baggett. 

Jackson County was hit hard and the damage could be seen almost immediately in the downtown area. “I saw the devastation and I’m really thankful to be here,” said Marianna Fire Chief, Nakeya (Nicky) Lovett. 

The damage altered the landscape making it hard for out of town help to navigate post-storm. “We placed an individual with each crew that was from here that could help navigate because they didn’t know our area as we do,” said Lovett. 

Communications were also an issue during and after the storm. At a certain point, it was too dangerous for first responders to be sent out into the storm. 

“Officers were trapped at their locations trying to get out because they couldn’t respond back to the station… physically they weren’t able to leave their homes,” said Chaix. 

Not being able to respond to 911 calls proves difficult for those working the storm. 

“Listening to people call and scream on the phone that their roof is gone or they have a huge tree on their house and just begging for help and we knew to go in that we would not be able to help them once the winds reached a certain mile per hour,” said Lovett. 

After the storm had passed, travel was slightly easier, but communications still remained a challenge. “At all times, we had at least one channel that was working, which was great,” said Sgt. Nicholas Hall with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office. 

Hall worked the morning after the storm. He said he drove into town and watched in awe as the damage grew with every passing mile. 

“There were some roads that were completely impossible, there were some of our troops that couldn’t get out of their homes,” said Hall. 

Mexico Beach first responders were also hard at work trying to get back into one of the hardest hit areas. Firefighters and Police worked together to make sure everyone was accounted for, going door to door with a list once they made their way back into town. 

Some people had chosen to evacuate at the last minute, but getting around and finding people proved to be a difficult task. “It really was the word of mouth to start with if people were looking for medical assistance or anything greater than that,” said Mexico Beach Fire Chief, Donald Walker. 

Walker said they were able to find everyone and now, 6 months out, the rebuilding process continues. 

While the damage is slowly starting to disappear, the memories and the longest, hardest shift of these first responders lives will never be forgotten. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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