Hurricane Michael: 'The devastation was unimaginable'

By: Ciara Cobb

 

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.

 

As I woke up from my two-hour slumber that Monday rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I read the blurry words on a bright screen, “ Ciara what do you think about leaving tomorrow?” and fell back asleep. It was two days before Hurricane Michael was to make landfall as a category 2.

The text told me I was going to evacuate with or without my say so. I had worked all night and decided I didn’t care enough to respond, as I’d rather sleep. This did not stop the texts. They continued and eventually I one of them called explaining how we were evacuating Tuesday at 9 a.m. and to have my stuff packed by that night. After that call I received one from my mother, where I explained in detail how I was evacuating with my friends and that I realized this hurricane was nothing I wanted to wait out, and I understood how serious it was. When all phone calls and evacuation plans were done, I had two and a half hours of sleep and a surge of annoyance because they took time from my sleep.

No longer having time to sleep I got ready for my day and continued on as usual, ENC 2135 at 1:30 P.M. When we all arrived to class, we discussed how we did not know what was ahead of us and no one could really say what was to come of this storm. After looking into evacuation zones and realizing I was in Zone A, an evacuation zone, everything became surreal. Up to this point, I was nonchalant about it all. Growing up in Florida, having just been through Hurricane Erma the year before, I figured this was just another hurricane that would pass by without much to it. With all this information, we were all more concerned about preparing to evacuate so class was let out early and we all went home to pack and gather supplies. As I was not leaving until the next day, the day before Hurricane Michael was to make landfall, I decided to join my friend for a night out on the beach as I did not have much to pack and my fear of this storm was more at bay then it should have been.

We were walking along the beach where the water meets the sand. As we walked, the wind blew hard in all directions, whipping my hair left and right, into my face and obstructing my view. The waves were violently crashing onto shore. The water came up higher and higher with each passing moment. Eventually, the shock of the warm water rose up to our knees soaking my pants and splashing my purse. The onslaught of waves that kept coming after that convinced us to leave the beach and walk around Pier Park. The air was no different from when we were on the beach, humid and warm, not quite hot nor cold, thick and sticky on your skin. You could feel it in the air that Hurricane Michael was coming. Soon we said goodbye to each other, noting the feel of the night, not taking the hint. We never thought of how horrendous Hurricane Michael was going to be. We hoped at most it was just going to “stir the pot”, but we could not have been more wrong.

Tuesday came, one day before landfall, we had the car loaded up, and made a last minute stop to drop off Sawyer, my friend’s dog, to the vet. We headed to Orlando and as we traveled the distance we kept getting updates, and soon the news came that Hurricane Michael was going to make landfall as a Category 4. I sat in that car convinced this storm was going to be nothing, then, hearing this news, the reality finally hit. I was scared, I was worried about my friend that stayed behind to wait the storm out, I was thinking about Sawyer’s safety, fearful of what would happen to my friend if Sawyer was harmed. My place of dwelling, my car, Vivian left alone under trees to fight her way through this Category 4 hurricane. I think about the destruction this hurricane can cause and know Panama City and the beach are not prepared for a hurricane of this category.

On the day that Hurricane Michael made landfall, we were safe in Orlando, though that did not mean that we were not worried about those who were left behind. With winds up to 155 miles per hour, just two miles per hour away from a category 5, we worried about the safety of our friends.  For myself, my friend that waited the storm out kept calling and the call would continuously drop or never go through. I would get text updates on how his condo right on the beach just had parts of its roof torn away from it.  We were watching videos and the news all day trying to keep updated with what was going on, it was disastrous, streets were flooded and no one knew anything.

We had plans to go home that following Saturday, but with how destructive the storm was, we were unsure if it was even possible to get into the city. There was postings on the Internet stating only first responders were allowed into the city until further notice, not even locals were allowed in. I was concerned for everyone who stayed, along with my car, my friend was worried about Sawyer who was left at the vet, and there was no update on the Florida State Panama City campus. We had no idea when we could go home or when classes would resume, but most importantly how devastated the city would be when we returned. I ended up separating ways with my friends and went home to Tampa. I did not bring my car with me and ended up coming back to Panama City a week and a half later after Hurricane Michael hit. I was not prepared for the damage I was about to see.

As I drove into town with my mother, we could never imagine how it was going to be. Damage was minimal in Tallahassee but the closer we got to Panama City, the worse it became. There were trees fallen everywhere, houses completely obliterated, an entire church missing a majority of its roof and the back of its building. A lot of places were closed and had no prospects of reopening. The relief felt when I saw the community coming together advertising “Free, hot meals!” had me awestruck, that in times of need a community could come together, even with the government trying to prevent people from giving away hot meals. The devastation was unimaginable, there was a boil water order and any place that was open was forced to serve everything bottled and use plastic where and disposable plates.

When I went back to work at Waffle House they had us working as many hours as they possibly could. The building was jam packed with people lined up to eat. A lot of our regular employees were gone and in place were unfamiliar faces, and I knew my place of work would never be the same. Customers were mainly construction workers and power companies, and the majority were leaving as much as they could tip knowing the hours we were working and what we were going through. We had employees coming from out of state to help staff Waffle Houses in our area. Some Waffle Houses were not open yet because the windows were blown out, the signs had fallen and power was still not working.

Three weeks later, there was still hardly any power and there was a curfew in place. The curfew became so serious that officials made Waffle House shut down during the curfew. This meant I had to work from twelve in the morning to five in the morning turning customers down and cleaning. If we were to serve them, there was rumor that either customers or staff would be arrested.

As I continued to live through the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, I realized the enormity of it all. Businesses closed at five in the afternoon, grocery stores had little to no food, and I was unable to find Wi-Fi to continue schoolwork when it started back up. There was no phone service to communicate with my family and there was the constant fear that things were never going to be normal again.

Still, the number of people from out-of-state and surrounding counties coming in to help out along with locals serving others,  I realized that, although it would take some time, things would get back to normal in time. Everywhere people were helping and it gave us hope.

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