Hurricane Michael: Boots on the Ground in the Aftermath – by Brian P. Whiddon

Hurricane Michael: Boots on the Ground in the Aftermath – by Brian P. Whiddon

Our Managing Editor, Brian Whiddon, is taking over News From the (Floating) Home Office this week to share his first-hand account of volunteering at Ground Zero of Hurricane Michael. 


Sitting on my boat last week, observing the rising waters and intense wind, I knew that Hurricane Michael was a monster. It was several hundred miles from St Petersburg yet we were getting 30 and 40 MPH gusts and the water in the marina had risen over and above the finger docks. The satellite images showed a compact, almost symmetrical cyclone slowly closing on the Florida panhandle. Monitoring the newscasts, I heard that the storm was no longer a Category 2, but a Cat 3. Then, it wasn’t a Cat 3, but a Cat 4!!

I grew up in Florida and I’ve been through enough hurricanes to know that this thing was going to do massive damage wherever it hit. I belong to a group of volunteers who are very civic minded and active. We’ve been through various training, including mass casualty first aid, search and rescue, and debris clearing to open roadways. I donate to a lot of good causes, but clicking a link on my computer and throwing some money at a relief organization just seemed too easy compared to the devastation that I knew Michael was going to dish out. So, I packed up 5 days’ worth of food and water, 20 gallons of extra gas, my chainsaw and protective gear, tents and camping equipment and, on Thursday morning before daylight, I was on my way North in the truck.

I was to meet the other members of my group in the town of Perry, Florida, just outside of the affected zone. For the three hours it took me to get there, I listened to the “Zello” application on my phone. Zello is an app that generally turns your phone into a walkie-talkie. The Cajun Navy has several channels set up, complete with dispatchers, each serving a different function. I monitored their “Hurricane Michael Mapping” channel, where Cajun Navy volunteers were reporting what roads they were on and how far they were able to get into the area before hitting police roadblocks. I listened with growing concern as report after report came in of people unable to get into this town or that because of trees down. Worse, many people were trying to get to family members who had not evacuated, and hadn’t contacted their relatives or friends after the storm. What was more disturbing was that it was the day after the storm hit, and police were keeping people from entering the area unless they had “official” FEMA or government credentials. From my police background, I knew that they didn’t have anywhere near enough officers and “official” rescue crews on scene yet to search the entire area for survivors and people in need.

Mingled among the reports of road conditions were various other people coming onto the channel asking, “Has anyone heard anything from the town of Wewahitchka?” “Has anyone heard anything from Port St Joe?” “My grandparents are in Mexico City. Has anyone gotten in there yet?” The answer at that point was consistent. No word from anyone south of I-10. People trying to get into the area kept reporting the roads as impassible, or being turned around by cops. I noticed that several people who announced that they were on this or that road about to try to head into a particular town were simply not heard from again. I knew that meant that the cell towers were down. One guy, who had finally gotten through, reported that Panama City looked like a “war zone.”

Our first day was spent mostly assisting the mapping group with determining what roads coming in from the East were passable. Everyone else trying to get into the affected zone was trying to come in from the North (I-10), or from the West. No one had reported anything from the East. We’d been told that Highway 98, which hugs the coastline, was destroyed all through Alligator Point and St Teresa. So, we decided to try our luck at getting into the towns of Lanark Village, Carrabelle, and East Point, hoping to reach Apalachicola. We quickly discovered that only 30 miles west of Perry, there was no power. No power meant no fuel. As best we could figure, the area without power stretched approximately 100 miles east and west, and at least 70 miles northward (not including parts of Georgia that were affected). We had to keep a close eye on our fuel consumption as we literally did not know when we would get a chance to fuel up again. We also spent most of the day without phone service. So, we were able to talk with each other via 2-way radios, but could not report anything back to the Cajun Navy dispatchers until we reached an area where cell towers hadn’t been destroyed.

Cellular service was non existent in most areas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we got deeper and deeper into the Apalachicola National Forest, damage became more and more extensive. I was already worried because I knew how far from “ground zero” we still were. We made it into Lanark Village, a waterfront town. Crews had already come in and used bulldozers to clear one lane of the road. Piles of debris across the road from the Gulf shoreline indicated where the storm surge had reached. Everything that had once been stored under the beach houses was now strewn all over the roadway and the surrounding woods. There were empty slabs where some houses had been.

 

The lumber in the foreground is where a house used to stand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bulldozers were still working in spots to simply push trees and trash out of the way. We proceeded on to Carrabelle. There’s a marina there with several boats damaged, sunk, and resting on their sides on the water’s edge. Building damage was random, but extensive in some spots. We got to a place where the road was partially washed out. Much of the asphalt had actually been lifted up as if some creature from underground had tried to surface from under the highway, then changed its mind. Along this road was a National Guard truck, stranded in the mud and abandoned. Apparently, the unit simply kept going with the intent to get a recovery vehicle out there later.

 

 

The mangled remains of HWY 98 in Carabelle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Guard truck abandoned in the mud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We continued westward along Highway 98, where we were eventually confronted by a local police roadblock. Despite our trucks being full of fresh water, fuel, and other essential items for victims, we were told that we could go no further unless we were residents. They also told us that the bridge leading to Apalachicola was not safe to cross. So, we headed North again via a forest road to find an area with cellular service. That took almost an hour and we succeeded only by borrowing a local store owner’s phone that happened to be working. We called in our report to the Cajun Navy mapping group, who were very appreciative. They had not gotten any reports from the East up to that point. Now, they would be able to route relief efforts and supplies along the roads that we confirmed as open.

We decided to head West again in an attempt to reach the heaviest hit areas. Taking County Road 20 into Blountstown, we began to see more and more damage from Michael’s fury. But, it was not until we headed South again on County Road 71 toward the town of Wewahitchka that we were confronted with the true devastation that this storm unleashed on the land. Entire swaths of what used to be forest now lay barren – clear cut by Michael’s winds. Much of this highway was one lane only. Practically every single tree that was along the East side of the roadway came down – on the roadway. That was why nobody could get to Wewahitchka during the first night. For mile after mile, giant front-end loaders were working in concert with crews of men with chainsaws to simply get the trees small enough to shove off to the roadside. Although this seemed a golden opportunity for us to do what we came to do (help clear roads), these were professional crews with company vehicles. We knew they wouldn’t be open to letting volunteers jump in for obvious liability reasons. So we kept moving.

Miles of forest were flattened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a native Floridian who has experienced five or six hurricanes and responded to the aftermath of three disasters, I was numbed by the sheer expanse of the devastation from this storm. The forest was flattened, or greatly thinned, for mile, after mile, after mile. It was something I would not have believed if I hadn’t seen it for myself.

The town of Wewahitchka was a buzz of activity. A large Sheriff’s command post sat in a parking lot as convoys of police cars from all over Florida raced by on RT 71, sirens screaming and lights flashing as the sped to their various destinations. Line crews were staged everywhere. All traffic lights were out. Trees were down in every yard. Houses stood in various stages of damage. Some older homes no longer stood at all. Even state prisoners in their striped pajamas were out cutting trees and picking up debris, under the wary eyes of their armed guards.

We kept moving.

Nineteen miles later, and after weaving in and out of one-lane traffic in several areas, we found ourselves in White City. It was the last town just north of a large canal that we would have to cross to get into Port St Joe – one of the most intensely devastated areas.

However, the bridge was blocked by Florida Highway Patrol and they weren’t allowing anyone but “officials” to cross.  We drove around White City and found that most of the residents had already come out, and cleared most of their own streets. Northern Floridians in the small towns are very resilient. Many are country folk who aren’t the least bit afraid of hard work. And, many of them have the tools and vehicles to do it.

Still out of cellular contact, and running out of daylight, we decided that splitting up and checking out multiple through-roads would be the best way to maximize our efforts. It was clear that we weren’t going to get into “ground zero” before nightfall.

Part II is RIGHT HERE.

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Brian Whiddon is the Managing Editor of WritersWeekly.com and the Operations Manager at BookLocker.com. Brian is an Army vet and former police officer, and spent several years chained to a desk, commuting Tampa's congested roadways, working in corporate management and training, while writing in his spare time. He is now an author, blogger, and NRA-certified firearms instructor. Brian lives and works aboard his 36-foot sailboat, the “Floggin’ Molly” in St. Petersburg, Florida. He calls her his "rescue boat" that he found abandoned in a boat yard and rebuilt himself - fulfilling a dream he had to one day live aboard. Brian no longer commutes, and has donated all his business slacks, collared shirts, and ties to Goodwill. You can follow Brian on Facebook.

5 Responses to "Hurricane Michael: Boots on the Ground in the Aftermath – by Brian P. Whiddon"

  1. Anonymous  October 21, 2018 at 10:40 am

    Overwhelming as the hurricane has been, your account helps to convert my perception of it from hopeless tragedy to one of tragedy-that-experienced-rational-humans-can-overcome. In the current global atmosphere, that is a most comforting reminder. Thank you for that insight and, more importantly, for being there to help. (I still have a vivid memory of a hurricane swath through a forest that I came upon during night maneuvers at Ft. Benning, GA, more than a half century ago.)

  2. halfnote17@gmail.com  October 20, 2018 at 8:30 pm

    Great article. It is amazing how much “grit” you all must have had to get through
    such a tumultuous time. I send hugs and good wishes to all of you. And Mr. Whiddon, your article was great – so descriptive. Thank you for telling the story.

  3. allegrettoart2@cs.com  October 19, 2018 at 1:49 pm

    Thank you for your detailed, personal account. Just watching snippets on TV is not enough for those of us outside the “danger zone” to fully understand the magnitude of the devastation. I’m happy to know that you returned home safely.

    • brian  October 20, 2018 at 11:32 am

      Thanks Pamela 🙂

  4. mctag@indytel.com  October 18, 2018 at 9:59 pm

    This firsthand account of the destruction is mesmerizing. Thanks for sharing.