**A month or so after Hurricane Michael destroyed Panama City, Florida—my home town—I was fortunate to write an article for the Washington Post about what life was like here just weeks after the storm. I had to edit my first version down from 1,400 words to 900 to meet the editorial guidelines. Below is the full-length version.**
by Kevin Elliott
It has been a month since the eye of hurricane Michael passed over my house.
If you saw any coverage of the storm, it was probably drone footage of the damage to Mexico Beach, the coastal village that was eliminated from the Florida Panhandle on October 10. It is twenty minutes from my home in Panama City.
I’d like you to know what it is like here.
You may have experienced a hurricane. We have many times. It’s what we do here, part of our waterfront rhythm. It sounds strange to my friends elsewhere, but we are intimate with our storms. Their names mark our lifespans like notches on a child’s closet door frame.
“Remember Ivan? That was bad in Pensacola.”
“I was in college when Opal hit Panama City Beach.”
“My dad was there for Eloise.”
Tropical cyclones define our salty lifescape as much as beach sand and blackened grouper. We take pride in our ability to live with and withstand them, to “ride them out.”
Took pride. No one is proud of what happened here a month ago. This was different. I struggle to call this storm by name.
It did not just damage our city. We were strafed. A methodical decimation. No, worse. Decimation means destroying one in ten. The destruction in Panama City is universal, not a single unaffected structure or person. Friends of mine have spoken with Vietnam vets who told them that the aftermath of this storm looks in every way like the result of a bombing run. The only thing missing are the craters.
We are homesick on our own streets.
I have heard other people raised in special places like Panama City, tourist spots in particular, say they don’t appreciate the beauty of their community enough. They don’t take advantage of what’s in their back yard, what tourists pay to enjoy.
Panama City isn’t like that. We truly dig our home and its surroundings. Our social media feeds are (were) full of weekend pontoon rides to Shell Island. Evening walks on Mexico Beach. Canoeing on Econfina Creek. A successful hog hunt or fishing trip. Cliché shots of tanned legs stretched over quartzite sugar sand. If there is a pretty sunset on a random Tuesday, you can scroll Facebook and see shots of it from a hundred different angles. Captioned #LoveWhereYouLive.
It’s a soulful life. Panama City is a lovely mix of old Florida Gulf-side hamlet and Deep South gentility, blue collar redneck ethos, military town, and artist colony. There are NRA conservatives and fire-breathing liberals and people who don’t give a shit. But we all like the fish tacos at Finn’s.
And the trees. Our historic neighborhoods—Millville, The Cove, Saint Andrews—are known by the shade of timeless live oaks under which those communities sprouted a century ago. The trees are why people wanted to live there. Forests of muscular beauties formed an unbroken canopy, a cocoon, over the homes of common people, a twining web of arthritic branches laced with dainty Spanish moss. It conjured Tolkien.
By some estimates, Panama City has lost more than 90 percent of its mature trees. Maybe that’s exaggerated, maybe not. But as you drive around, it feels accurate. There are few shadows left in our defining enclaves. Imagine Savannah without its oaks. What would it be?
How does that sort of mutilation affect a small town? We know what trauma does to individuals. But can the effects of abuse be experienced collectively, across a populace? It seems so.
This is a crass analogy, but the best I can think of – it feels like we were raped. Pinned and violated, over and over. Taken. Taken from. It was absurdly violent. In less than three hours, we were denuded, brutalized, and left exposed.
There is a heartache here.
We are in phase two now. In phase two, the adrenaline is gone. The visceral needs are met, most roofs are tarped, fewer sirens. Curfews lifted. The astonishing army of out-of-town linemen that rewired our infrastructure has all but dispatched. The first panic is over, but has been replaced with a dreadful clarity about what we are really up against, and for how long.
At first, early in phase one, it didn’t sink in that the foundation of our community could be cracked to the bedrock. But both hospitals were closed. Completely, taking no patients. There was not a single gas station or grocery store in operation. No traffic lights. No cell service. No schools. No municipal water or flushing toilets. No emergency services to outlying areas. Looting in a city that has never, ever, had looting. A local mayor openly recommended on her official Facebook page that her constituents leave for at least two months.
In phase two, the layoffs have started.
A friend of mine, a successful medical marketer, texted me the other day.
“Know of anyone hiring? The medical system is suffering and I am more than likely going to be laid off in two weeks.” Update: she was.
My friend lost her home to the storm as well. She salvaged enough of her daughter’s belongings to fill a few pillow cases.
Phase two has brought a housing crisis. There are literally not enough habitable buildings. By all accounts, more than 30 percent of structures in Panama City proper are unlivable. In some pocket communities like Parker, Callaway, and Springfield, it is well over half.
Many teachers, police officers and fire fighters, paper mill workers—those lucky enough to still have jobs—are homeless. Entire apartment building and condo populations have been evicted for repair and mold remediation, without recourse. A co-worker of mine bought a camper and parked it behind the remains of her home while they rebuild over the next year. As of last week, she was still trying to get running water to it.
At the same time, many places are hiring. Home Depot, Wal-Mart, AutoZone, and certainly the building trades, are open and begging for applicants. Many lower-wage workers had to leave almost immediately, couldn’t wait for the rebuild. But if there are no homes, then coming back, even for a job, is futile.
We are in a quandary.
We will rebuild. All communities say that after a disaster, but we will. As what though? With whom? How long?
Yards are re-appearing. Roofs are tarped. Stacks of debris are more organized and taller, much taller. People are doing what they can. It must be done, but it’s also busy work and therapy, something we can control and achieve.
The busy work is lessening though. We’re on to the stuff that average citizens can’t do. Heavy demolition, rebuilding whole subdivisions and shopping centers, and disposing of the interminable berms of shattered trees and household belongings at every curb.
We will rebuild I’m sure, but it hurts right now. We are vulnerable and scared. We have not moved on. We are grieving.
As in all catastrophes, there are some smiles and optimism. Bucking up. Stories of genuine communal effort. #850Strong is a popular hashtag (850 is our area code).
For Halloween, a group of locals decided to hold a community trick-or-treat event on Harrison Avenue, the umbilical of our historic working-waterfront downtown area. They held a used costume giveaway for kids who had lost their clothes. People donated candy.
My wife and I normally hovel up and cut the porch lights on Halloween night, but I wanted to see how this event would go, how (or if) people would respond.
It was slammed. Costumed families choked Harrison Avenue. Those restaurants that were able to open, did. There were craft tables and blow-up ghosts and a stilt walker. The Saint Andrews Ukulele Band performed outside the damaged Panama City Center for the Arts. It was everything Halloween should be and a much-needed gathering. We needed to see each other’s faces.
I chatted with a couple while we waited online at Tom’s Hotdogs, an iconic downtown joint. They lived in Callaway. Lost everything. They and their two little ones were dressed as the Incredibles.
What does it take to actually dress up as a family and go for hot dogs after the last month in Panama City?