‘all I needed was leaving with me’

By: Rebecca Kemp

Editor's Note: This is part of a series a first-hand stories from students in ENC2135. For more stories, visit the Hurricane Michael relief page.

The first I heard of the storm on Sunday while sitting at a sushi bar enjoying an all-you-can eat special with my husband. We overheard the man next to us talking about how he needed to board up the windows of his elderly aunt’s home because a hurricane was headed straight for the coast. I remember thinking at the time that he must be from out of town, maybe here for the weekend from the east coast. He could not possibly be speaking about the Panhandle because I would know if a hurricane was coming. I quickly googled the weather on my phone, and to my surprise a tropical storm was forming and projected to make landfall early in the coming week. I have had the experience of a tropical storm before, so my husband and I decided the man was being overly cautious and continued to devour plate after delicious plate of sushi. 

On Monday morning, I got up early as usual. I took out the dog first, then the trash. I got ready for school and started my commute to campus. On the radio, the weather was the leading story. The fast-moving tropical storm that had sounded so tame yesterday had been upgraded to a hurricane, category 1. A tinge of unease started to percolate in my stomach.

My first class of the day started with a discussion about the impending hurricane that was moving on a trajectory to pass directly over Panama City. Several students spoke about the multiple times they had seen a hurricane make landfall. The consensus was that we would be all right, but I was skeptical due to my lack of experience. I started texting my husband, “Should we take this storm seriously? Do you think we will need to evacuate?” His answer was practical: “There is nothing we can do right now. We can make a plan tonight, just make sure you get gas on the way home.” My tinge of unease was simmering into urgency. 

Before my second class of the day had begun, classes for the week starting Tuesday had been canceled, and the hurricane hurtling towards us at an alarming rate was growing to a category 2. That class started with a very frank conversation about the real danger now expected to arrive Wednesday morning, and ended abruptly so that we might prepare for what lie ahead. On my way home, I pulled into the first gas station I could find and filled my tank.

At home, I poured over any new piece of information I could extract from my computer or phone. I stared at the National Hurricane Center’s website in disbelief. This unpredictable storm, which had started only a short time ago, was racing toward us and expanding expeditiously. Still again, I was skeptical. I knew that peril was predicted, but I thought about the fear that had been whipped up during Hurricane Florence. How it was predicted to be a category 5 but was weakened to a category 1 by landfall. Later my husband and I decided we would hope for the best but prepare for the worst. That meant gathering candles, water, canned food and other supplies to ride out the storm at home. After all, we live 45 miles west of Panama City. I went to bed that night feeling confident about our decision. 

Most of Tuesday was spent enacting our plan. I braved the crowds at Winn-Dixie to buy water, canned chili and dog food. I unearthed every candle we had and made sure our camping lanterns had fresh batteries. Whatever furniture we could move upstairs was stored in the hallway, just in case of flooding. I even had time to do all the laundry, but always in the background I was checking the advancing hurricane.

Our neighbor, who had lived in his townhouse for 13 years, assured us he had weathered hurricanes category 1 and 2 before with zero worry or damage. I countered that we lived in a FEMA flood zone and that storm surge was what was most alarming, but he insisted all would be well even if the hurricane grew to a category 3. My skepticism remained, as did my close watch on things weather related. That night I went to bed feeling prepared but worried. What would tomorrow hold?

To say I slept well would be a lie; I tossed all night. Finally at 4 a.m. I reached for my phone. The hurricane had grown overnight to a category 4 set to make landfall in less than eight hours. That simmering feeling of urgency boiled over into full-blown panic. I shook my husband to consciousness. “Tanner! The hurricane has grown to a category 4. I think we should probably get out of here.” He sleepily replied, “Has the direction changed?” “No,” I said as I got up to turn on the light, “but if it does decide to come our way, we’re screwed.” Tanner was quiet for only a moment. Then he jumped out of bed, “OK, let’s pack the car and drive west.”

The next 30 minutes was a flurry of packing. We filled the car with water and a cooler of food. We shoved in our air mattress and a 20-pound bag of dog food. I brought all my schoolbooks and supplies, plus my husband’s uniforms and boots. We both packed overnight bags stuffed with a few days of clothing, then we put the dog on top like a cherry and hit the road. Our speed and precision were impressive. As we drove away, I remember thinking whatever happened, all I needed was leaving with me in the car. 

With no destination in mind we drove west on 98. The rain was already pummeling the road, but our goal was distance. We searched the radio for updates. The emergency broadcasting station was warning residents to seek shelter as an impending hurricane was close to making landfall. Outside of Pensacola, we tried to check-in at a Holiday Inn Express, only to find there was no room at the inn. The kindly woman at the desk told me all the hotels in the surrounding area were full, but that I should try Alabama. We made our way to Mobile and stopped again at a Holiday Inn Express. To our relief a room was available, but not until 3 p.m. We joyously took the room and settled into the lobby for our long wait. From the safety of the lobby in downtown Mobile, we watched the news in anticipation.

Hurricane Michael made landfall just before noon on Wednesday morning just shy of a category 5. The eye of Hurricane Michael passed directly over Mexico Beach 30 miles east of Panama City. The devastation was catastrophic. 

In the hours that followed Hurricane Michael’s landfall, reports of damage started to dominate the news cycle. Nothing prepared me for the images and video from Mexico Beach; the town was leveled. Entire homes blown away like matchsticks. Storm surge poured onto the coast burying two-story homes. I hoped that people had heeded the warning and evacuated, but I knew many stayed. 

I was eager to hear news of how the areas west of Mexico Beach had been affected and if our home had sustained any storm surge flooding or damage when my phone began to buzz. My neighbor, who had decided to ride out the storm, sent word and pictures that we had been spared any damage. I felt immediate relief. Then the thought occurred to me, maybe we had been rash in evacuating. Almost instantly, I knew we had made the right decision, if for no other reason than piece of mind. 

I now have a desire to be overly prepared should we ever face a hurricane again. I have 10 gallons of water storage and a jar that I put extra cash and change into so money will never be an issue in the decision to stay or go. I made an appointment with our insurance agent to review our policy, and I plan on adding flood insurance.

I was lucky; my home was not damaged and my life following the storm has returned to relative normalcy. Since returning to campus, I have been astounded by the experiences my fellow students survived. I am humbled by a community that has found strength together and inspired by the willpower of that community to move forward.

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