Our Managing Editor, Brian Whiddon, is taking over News From the (Floating) Home Office this week to share Part II his first-hand account of volunteering at Ground Zero of Hurricane Michael. See Part I of his story HERE.
(From Last Week) 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…
We all met again in Blountstown two hours later to discover that one of our team’s members had found a clear route into Panama City. We decided that the next morning we would head there, and see what good we could do with our chainsaws. We had only an hour left until dusk, and the police curfew. Even though we were there to help people, we were not exempt from the dusk to dawn curfew that was in effect for all but police, fire, and EMS personnel. We decided to drive back down to Wewahitchka, where we could camp just outside of town. That would place us closer to the road we needed to take into Panama City.
As the sun began to set, we pitched our tents outside a mini-storage business. It was a little eerie, realizing we were just on the edge of a town, but everything was pitch black. There were no street lights. There was no hazy glow over the area to drown out the stars. But, once night had fallen, from all directions we could hear the distant drone of generators. Although we had each been sitting all day long in our vehicles, we were all dead tired, and didn’t waste much time eating and crawling into our sleeping bags.
The sun was not yet up when we climbed out of our tents, and fired up our camp stoves to get desperately needed coffee into our bloodstreams. Once we had packed up our stuff, we were rolling again – this time westward on Highway 22.
Again, we drove through mile after mile of freshly de-forested areas. Michael did in a couple of hours what it would have taken a logging company a year to do. Occasionally, the scenery was broken up by the lone house or barn off the road with varying levels of damage. We saw everything from homes that weren’t touched to buildings with trees through them, or roofs violently ripped off.
Another thing we were noticing was an increasing number of cars abandoned on the side of the road. Again, no power meant no gas pumps. People had begun to get restless, and started wandering out to find food or water, a phone signal, family members, or just a sense of what their world looked like now. Some didn’t take fuel range into account. I could imagine the feeling of someone who had driven from one town to the next, hoping they would find a gas station open, only to fail, and have to start back toward their home, knowing their car may not make it.
We were still without phone service so we couldn’t get updates from the mapping team dispatchers. I had been listening to the radio the day before. What was surreal about this was that, as I scanned through station after station on the FM side, the same broadcast was being played on all frequencies. Apparently, because almost all of the radio stations in the area had been seriously damaged by the storm, the few remaining stations were being run by generators, and linked up as repeaters (as best I could tell). Then, the stations’ parent company (IHeartRadio) had DJs and talk hosts from all over Florida rotating shifts from their home stations, and bouncing the signal off the various workable antennas in the storm hit areas. I even heard some personalities I recognized from the Tampa area.
It was day four after the storm had hit and people were still calling asking if anyone had heard from certain parts of towns. Some people were actually calling from Panama City so we knew that portable cellular towers were up and running in that area. Some people were actually calling the radio station, giving the addresses of elderly or sick relatives, and asking that anyone in the area bring them medication, or rescue them from their homes because they were trapped inside by fallen trees. Others were asking why they had seen no emergency personnel yet. The truth was that, even with the thousands of police, firefighters, and volunteers flooding into the area, Michael was so destructive that it still wasn’t enough.
I was really chomping at the bit to get into action, and start helping people face to face. I knew that what we’d done the day before had made a huge difference in getting more help into the area. But, I really wanted to see some direct results from our efforts.
We were noticing that the work crews were making astounding progress in clearing the roads. Our teammate had reported the previous day that Highway 22 still had several trees and branches extending into the driving lanes, presenting us with an opportunity to put our chainsaws to work, and open the road up more for traffic. However, on this morning, both lanes were now clear. We assumed there were crews out working around the clock.
After about an 45 minutes, we approached the town of Callaway. A suburb just to the east of Panama City, Callaway had been hit with the same eye-wall winds that battered her bigger sister. The difference was obvious. Nothing we had seen up to this point compared to what we saw in Callaway. Power poles were down or disfigured everywhere. Their wires were strewn like spaghetti throughout the streets. There was no need to remove them. There was no power for miles in any direction. Even if there had been, most wires had been snapped. There were very few places where you could find a continuous length of wire between more than three or four poles without a section missing.
Every commercial building had its windows blown out. Debris was still strewn everywhere. The city crews had cleared the main through streets but several of the side streets and many apartment complexes were still snarled with fallen trees. Now the challenge was to find trees that we could tackle with without a bulldozer. Our 18” chainsaws and pickup trucks would be no match for some of the behemoths that Michael had knocked over like they were toy railroad scenery.
We came to a loop in a road that went through a residential area and a trailer park. Two trees lay across the road blocking an entire section of the loop, preventing people from driving out. After assessing the situation, and setting up our trucks, we broke out the gear and got to work. One of the trees was also blocking a couple’s front porch. They were a bit mobility-challenged, and were really happy to see us. So were other residents of the area. Apparently, not too many of them had chainsaws. After about an hour and a half, we had the couple’s front porch and the roadway cleared, and moved on to another area with a big pine tree lying across most of the road. After getting that cut up and cleared away, we noticed that numerous utility crews were starting to show up with better equipment than us. So, we moved on, and headed deeper into Panama City.
In Panama City, we had phone service again. We were able to update the mapping group, and get a little more info. After we’d cleared a couple more trees, one of our team got in touch with a contact he has with the Cajun Navy, and found out they had a staging point nearby. So, we linked up with them. Our team member was already a registered volunteer with them so they began dispatching us to do welfare checks in the area.
What really jumped out at me in Panama City was not only the level of destruction, but the sheer scope of it. It seemed that every tree, every house, and every store was severely damaged or destroyed. As I drove through the city, I saw only one Dollar General store that hadn’t been reduced to a steel skeleton. Power poles were down on every street and every intersection. I saw mobile homes blown over like they were made of cardboard. I saw a 30-car train blown over (see video further below). I passed a trailer business on a main highway. All of its trailers were strewn amongst trees on the other side of the six lane road. I saw house after house after house with trees crashed through the roof.
In 1992, I was in Colorado with the Army when Hurricane Andrew hit so I did not get to see firsthand what that storm did to Miami and Homestead. However, I was a police officer in Kissimmee in 1998 when as many as 12 tornadoes touched down one night on the east side of town, killing 42 people. I was a police officer in Palm Beach County in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma slammed into us. We actually had to evacuate our station in the middle of the storm as the roof began lifting up from the building. And, in 2004, I responded to Charlotte County after Hurricane Charley did its famous direction change and hit Western Florida. All of those were bad. But, when I measure those against Michael’s sheer power and the size of the area impacted, this was definitely the worst I’ve ever seen. I was glad to be there helping where I could.
Unfortunately, by late afternoon, we had reached the point in which we had to use the gas we’d brought in cans to get our trucks back to a safe, unaffected zone. So, we filled up our tanks and headed back East to Perry. As I watched the scenery outside the truck slowly become more and more “normal,” I began to realize that I would not have believed all of this if I hadn’t been there, and seen it with my own eyes. It’s one thing to see the images on the news and the Internet, and say, “Wow, that’s horrible.” It’s something entirely different to be there, surrounded on all sides by the devastation, the reality of the situation, and the people directly affected by it.
The victims of Hurricane Michael will be affected for years to come. Just because the hurricane is out of the headlines doesn’t mean they don’t still desperately need help.
How You Can Help:
The Cajun Navy has become well-known for their water-borne rescue efforts in major disasters. They have branched out into several types of search and rescue operations. They continue to grow, and need help. This doesn’t mean that you have to travel to another state and get in a boat. You can get involved without ever having to leave your living room!
Modern Internet technology allows people to join relief efforts in ways we could never have dreamed of 20 years ago. With the “Zello” application, you can turn your cell phone or computer into a two-way radio, allowing you to speak to anyone, any time. You can sit at home helping out as a volunteer dispatcher, sending people where they are needed a thousand miles away! They need people with admin skills. Are you good with spreadsheets? They need folks to sort through thousands of volunteers, and help get people assigned where their skills are most beneficial. Or, you could be a mapper. We had people in the Northeast and Texas mapping out the routes into Panama City, then passing that crucial information along to relief groups coming in from as far away as Chicago!! Are you good with numbers? They need people who can allocate donation funds to the teams in the field. Are you savvy with logistics? The field teams needed to find staging areas, food and water delivered to them, and links to the proper authorities for various situations they got into.
If you go to https://www.cajunnavyrelief.com/volunteer-form/, you can sign up to be a volunteer. The time to do it is NOW because, once a disaster hits, they get flooded with volunteers. They vet each volunteer and that takes time. On that form, they will ask you what types of skills you have and what you would like to do. You can be directly involved with the next emergency when lives are on the line – without ever having to get off your couch.
Donating some money to a good organization is nice. But, it doesn’t compare to sense of accomplishment you’ll feel knowing that your efforts directly helped to save lives.
- Hurricane Michael: Boots on the Ground in the Aftermath – by Brian P. Whiddon
- MENACING MICHAEL! See Our Hurricane Pics and Videos
- Extreme Excitement and Fear! How We Fared in Hurricane Irma!! (Includes several photos)
- Ack! Has Anybody Seen Toto?!?! Cool Storm Pics from the “Home Office!!”
- First Week in St. Pete? A Car Accident AND a Tropical Storm! Whoop!
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, and working in corporate management and training while writing in his spare time. He is also 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.
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