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Hurricane Michael: My Experience

Weather

It’s been six months since Hurricane Michael and I remember it like it was yesterday.

I remember everything down to the smallest detail.

I remember so well I could have typed this blog today, but in reality, I typed it months ago. I just never published it, and I never thought I would.

I was content staring at the file on my desktop, but I’ve decided it’s important for everyone to read this so that if you’re ever put in a situation where you must evacuate your home to avoid going through a natural disaster, you do it without a second thought. This blog is long, and I hope you’ll read the whole thing.

Michael struck the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018, as a massive Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155mph and a pressure of 919mb. Putting that into perspective, a Category 5 hurricane has sustained winds of 156mph. Hurricane Michael is the strongest on record to hit the Florida Panhandle and is the third strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States. 

October 9, 2018: As of the 4 PM update, Michael was now a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 120mph and a minimum pressure of 957mb. It is at this point Michael becomes labeled as a major hurricane. Michael is expected to remain a Category 3 but strengthen a bit more before making landfall the next day.

By the 7 PM update, Michael’s winds remained at 120mph, but the pressure dropped to 953mb. This was noted by the tightening in Michael’s circulation as it became more impressive on satellite.

I reported to WMBB in Panama City, FL around 1 PM and met with the News Director and Chief Meteorologist Justin Kiefer, who I would be spending the coming days with along with the rest of the weather team. In the event to save as many lives as possible, WMBB began its wall-to-wall coverage at 6 PM. We wouldn’t go off the air for 18 hours. When we did go off the air, it wasn’t by choice.

October 10, 2018: At the 1 AM update, Michael had officially strengthened and become a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 130mph and a minimum pressure of 945mb. It was shortly after this Justin and I took a small break and Meteorologists Ross Whitley and Sam Lucey took over. While I had a hotel just a couple miles away from the station, I opted for a cot in the general managers’ conference room, since I knew conditions would rapidly deteriorate through the early morning.

This is where I thought I was smart for planning ahead since I had brought a couple changes of clothes to the studio with me. I could take a break from wearing the suit for a bit. I threw on some shorts and attempted to take a nap.

Fun fact: cots aren’t made for those of us over six feet tall, but it was better than nothing.

By 7 AM all four of us were in the weather center, tracking Michael as the outer bands of the storm came on shore, bringing in heavy rain and tropical storm force winds. At the 10 AM update, Michael had strengthened still a Category 4 hurricane, but now with sustained winds of 145mph and a minimum pressure of 928mb. A short time later Michael strengthened even more, with sustained winds of 150mph.

It is at this point we were just a couple hours from landfall. Tension and fear were building because we all knew in the back of our heads we were hours away from catastrophic damage. There’s an odd feeling knowing something like that is coming and there isn’t one thing you can do about it.

I guess you could say 11:30 AM and beyond is when things got real and things went downhill fast. The fastest winds were moving onshore and looking through our tower cam, we could see buildings were beginning to lose their roofs, and frankly, we thought the camera would go flying off the tower. The winds were so strong they knocked out our anemometer on the building, which measures wind-speed.  

It is around this time that conditions inside the studio began to deteriorate. While still on the air, chunks of the ceiling were falling into our laps and it sounded like a jumbo jet was trying to land on the roof. The studio itself also began to leak. Folks were putting buckets under the leaks and attempting to cover equipment with plastic. We were getting reports in of 120+mph wind speeds out of Tyndall AFB.

At this point, things happened very fast. A part of a nearby building’s roof flew off and sliced the gas line to our generator. That was the end of wall-to-wall coverage at WMBB and obviously an end to the lights.

The news director moved us all to the newsroom, so we’d be safe and in the same spot. Still, we created a list of names to make sure everyone was accounted for. While we were in the newsroom, the hurricane was swirling outside, and the ceiling began to cave in and standing water made its way into the building. The ceiling of the newsroom was nothing special. It was just an office building-type ceiling and was no match for the water. I also remember looking over at one of the doors and water was pouring in over the top and rushing down the front of the door like one of those water features in fancy places.

We continued to huddle closer and closer together as different sections of the ceiling began to fall and the hanging lights/camera were shaking. We decided it was obviously best to not sit under those. We remained in the newsroom for probably the next couple of hours to wait things out. 

Once things finally began to calm down outside, we walked around the building trying to look out windows to see what the city looked like. Fear was still there, and the building was already getting incredibly hot and beginning to smell of mold. The front door of WMBB just happened to be under an awning, so we ventured outside, mostly so we could get some air. It was still incredibly windy, but we could see the destruction in eyesight. This was when we looked and saw the news car I took down hadn’t been spared.

We got back inside (I don’t know what time it was at this point since there was no power and my iWatch had been long dead) and tried to get some phone calls out using whichever phone had service. If you had Verizon like me, you were out of luck totally. I managed to get a text to my dad, and a broken phone call/text to Maggie back in Huntsville letting them know I was safe.

Thanks to the heat and smell inside we decided to head outside and look around. Conditions had calmed enough that we could really walk around and adventure. I went with a couple reporters walking through downtown Panama City, and what we saw is nothing short of traumatic. Utter destruction is what we found. The pictures/video simply do not paint the picture well enough. 

I remember we were walking down the road and this elderly couple had walked out through the window frame of the store I think they owned and lived in. They seemed relieved to see us, I think mostly because we were wearing jackets with our station letters on them and they thought maybe we had some info. We didn’t. We ran into another man who came frantically running towards us telling us his house smelled of gas and he needed help. It was terrible knowing we couldn’t do anything. We had no phones to call 911 and even if we could, odds were that they wouldn’t be able to get to that house. 

In most cases, brick buildings were laying on the ground in piles and covering windows with plywood proved ineffective. There was a residential high rise for the elderly that I believe wouldn’t be livable anytime soon.

One of the friends I was with suggested we walk down to the Marina which was essentially at the end of the road. What we saw when we got there was completely mind-blowing. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico had long come ashore and boats were now tangled messes. It was still windy enough that salt water was still splashing up on our faces, making for an uncomfortable feeling. We walked inside a building one that seemed to have at one time more windows than wall. The building was standing, but it was destroyed from the inside out.

We walked back to the station, and on the way back discovered the looting had already started. If we weren’t scared enough already, that added a new level of fear to the mix, knowing our own station was now exposed. We made it back to WMBB and learned we’d be moving to a slightly more “comfortable” location, the Baptist Church across the street. Comfortable is a relative term…I guess drier is a better description. We all worked together to transfer cots and food over to the church, so we could attempt to settle in. I think the only humorous part in this was helping one of the anchors Kelly carry her air mattress from the station to the church. Still being windy outside, the air mattress did not come quietly.

Looking at the rubble and debris on the ground we found our WMBB sign that had flown off the pole and landed about 20 yards away in front of the church doors. This provided the only smile of the day as we held the sign up to take a picture.

I look at this picture and can’t help but thank the WMBB team for accepting me as a new member of their team and being willing to walk around and hang out with me. Kelly would tell you this was fun for her because we attempted to drive to her apartment and that scared me, even more, driving over power-lines even though I knew they were dead.

Arriving back at the church we tried to all settle down and eat dinner. Dinner consisted of cold meat sandwiches and all the chips and cookies we could ever want. Of course, the startling moment here was realizing we couldn’t really go to the bathroom properly because there was no running water. That killed the appetite for some. 

So, there we sat in the church as darkness began to fall and a curfew was issued. That was an interesting alert to receive on my phone. According to the alert if you were outside you would be arrested.

We sat under the light of a flashlight and used those and cellphones whenever we had to go to the bathroom. There wasn’t much of a comfort level since we knew there were looters outside we were afraid they’d come into the church. The church had one of those walkways connecting it and the parking garage, which was easily accessible to anyone. What added to that fear was the “man with a gun” we saw outside the church. He appeared to have some sort of credentials because the police we managed to call didn’t arrest him. Still, that added no comfort as we got quiet for the night.

There’s something weird about laying on a cot and being scared by everyday sounds that normally would be meaningless. Someone walking, a dog barking, kid crying, bathroom door opening, front door opening. All meaningless sounds that take on a whole new level of fear when you’re lying in total darkness in an unfamiliar environment.

The conditions inside the church were not bad. Parts of the ceiling were leaking there as well, but we were able to set our stuff up around the leaks. Still, unless you were barefoot, it was a good idea to put shoes on every time you got up from your cot to avoid getting your socks wet.

October 11, 2018: We’d never been so excited for sunrise in our lives. I guess what made us so excited was the lack of ability to sleep, and again the sounds and the darkness were beyond terrifying. The destruction aside, we stepped outside to a refreshing morning with temperatures in the upper 60s and lower 70s. We couldn’t go anywhere just yet because curfew remained in effect for the next couple of hours. Justin called together a meeting with all the meteorologists to thank us for our hard work, but I feel it’s me that should thank them. It was an honor to work with them and I know we saved lives and did the best job possible.

We had a morning staff meeting and devised a plan of sorts. Much of the reporting staff were anxious to get to their homes and apartments to see what if anything was left, and the ND and GM were anxious to get me on the road back to Huntsville. I guess at that point they felt the best thing for me was to get out since I was completely displaced.

We examined my news car and decided if we could get the roof moved it would be operational, despite its extensive damage. After that was solved I rode with another WMBB employee to my hotel where his wife had also been staying.

The hotel was destroyed from the inside out. The lobby filled with standing water and the staircase was even worse. Getting up to my third-floor room involved moving around the water and then down a soaked hallway. Expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that aside from soaked carpet my room remained dry. The room next door was not as fortunate. In that room 329 (I was 327) the entire wall with the window was completely blown out. I looked through the hole and saw the TV three floors below laying in the flower bed.

Returning to the church, I’d say it was just after 8? Again, the times are a bit fuzzy. It was time for me to head back to Huntsville. I left feeling lost and incredibly sad. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my new friends, and I felt awful leaving them wishing I could stay and help. I still feel that way. That’s been one of the hardest parts, coming home to my bed, and couch, and hot shower knowing they all have nothing. It took me about 1.5 hours to get out of Panama City due to the destruction around me. The trees down along 231 north meant driving in the opposing lanes or driving through the median.

Post-hurricane was by far more terrifying than the event itself or even all the planning pre-landfall.

I think what made it most terrifying was the factor of not knowing. Not knowing what the future held, or if the church would get broken in while we were inside it, and for the WMBB staff not knowing if they would ever have a building to return too since it took on so much water during the hurricane itself.

The thing is, Panama City was almost “spared” The storm made a slight NE turn, sparing the city from the strongest section of the hurricane. The strongest part of any hurricane is the right front section. If that area of the hurricane had passed over Panama City, who knows what the damage would have been or if we would have survived.

There’s so much work to be done and it’ll be years before the area is even close to recovered. It seems most of what’s left of downtown needs torn down and re-built from the ground up. The pictures look bad, but they still don’t do the event justice.

This wasn’t a cool experience, but exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time. It will take time to heal mentally from these events, but I know myself and my new team at WMBB will come out of this stronger than ever.
 

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

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