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A year later: ‘Noles rebuild after Hurricane Michael

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Chris Smith had been tracking storms since he was a child, a self-confessed “weather geek.” 

The Florida State meteorology graduate had seen storms of varying strength come and go. And about a week before Hurricane Michael made its arrival, Smith was concerned this one could be unlike others that had hit the Florida panhandle.

“Nobody thought we would be looking at what we saw – a Category 5,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, intensity forecasting is one of our big limitations. It never stopped. It kept getting bigger and bigger.”

A meteorologist for a decade in Panama City, Smith watched as the storm built from a tropical storm and then continued to strengthen through the categories on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. His concern grew on a Sunday, three days before the storm would eventually make landfall at Mexico Beach.

Smith booked a hotel for his wife and son in Biloxi, Miss. He of course would stay and work, updating residents on the storm’s track. This one was unusual in what he saw with the models and the track. And he went on the air to tell viewers they needed to heed warnings.

“We’ve always had these close calls,” Smith said. “But I always would tell them, ‘Hey, my family is staying. This is a shelter-in-place scenario. We’ll be fine. We’ll ride this out.’ But this is the time that I was, ‘Nope. Folks need to get to a safe place. This is going to be one of those storms, or at least has the potential to.’ ”

Smith, unfortunately, was right. A day later, models forecasted the hurricane at a Category 2 or 3 while other models projected a Category 4 or 5.

“That’s when you really began pushing,” Smith said. “This isn’t a drill.”

Many residents did leave Panama City and other places along the coast, especially in flood-vulnerable areas. Thousands chose to stay and experienced 160 mph winds – unlike any the area has seen in decades.

Flooding was a huge concern. Hurricane Michael was responsible for dozens of deaths in Florida. There was also more than $25 billion in property damage, according to the National Hurricane Center.

As bad as it was in Panama City, and still is there and in neighboring towns, Smith knows that it could have been far worse.

“If that storm had come in at Panama City Beach, that would have put the bulk of the storm surge into St. Andrews Bay,” Smith said. “That would have flooded Lynn Haven, Panama City, Springfield, Callaway, you would have 15 feet of water. Do you know how many people would have died? Fifteen miles between where it made landfall and if it had made landfall. Fifteen miles is way within the scope of error. There is no guarantee – it could have easily wobbled and hit on Panama City Beach … And they still went through hell over there because of the wind but they missed out on the water threat. So in a way we ended up lucky.”

Every hurricane is a little different. Some are rainmakers. Others produce widespread flooding. This one brought intense wind – along the coastline and for hundreds of miles inland.

“My job is to paint a picture of what it’s going to be like,” Smith said. “And it exceeded what I painted. What Mexico Beach looked like after the storm is what I expected. But what I wasn’t prepared for is what it looked like inland as you move through Panama City and go up through Clarksville and Calhoun County and up to Marianna. I wasn’t prepared for the loss of trees, that volume of trees. We lost 50-80 percent of the trees. Which is just insane.”

A year after the storm, one we’ll be talking about for decades, the Osceola takes a look back at the damage from Hurricane Michael through the eyes of Florida State graduates and fans in the panhandle.

As the storm moved inland, it ran a diagonal path through the Big Bend.

In Blountstown: ‘It was like the apocalypse’

Adam Edwards grew up in Blountstown, went to FSU and returned shortly after graduating in 2011 to teach physical education and coach a number of sports at the high school.

He often references the tight-knit, self-sufficient small town that looks forward to Friday nights watching the Blountstown High football team in the fall but also supporting traditionally strong programs in fall, winter and spring.

Edwards left town with his fiancé, now wife, Sherie, and they found the roads back through Georgia difficult to navigate with trees down everywhere.

When he got back to Blountstown? He couldn’t get to his house.

“It was like the apocalypse,” Edwards said. “I couldn’t get into my home. I had to cut my way in with a chainsaw.”

Edwards wasn’t able to live in his house for a few weeks, which isn’t nearly as long as others in Blountstown. He needed a new roof but ended up being fortunate compared to others.

“We had players who didn’t have homes or who had trees on their homes or had trees crush their vehicles,” Edwards said. “Our starting quarterback, it took his roof off and he didn’t have any clothes because the water had gotten into his closet and ruined all of his clothes and trophies. We got together and gave him some clothes.”

Coaches did what they could to accommodate players and families. The boys wanted to play football again – it was a release from the reality of daily life. So Blountstown practiced early in the morning, and coaches were up even earlier driving an hour or more to find ice. 

Then the players took cold showers in the fieldhouse before turning around and working on their homes or helping others. It wasn’t community service by mandate. It was a community growing stronger through adversity.

Practicing and playing football may not have been the most important thing but the community rallied around the football team’s return to the field. And for the players, they needed it, too.

“That was the best part of their day, they told me,” Edwards said. “It was very therapeutic, just to have football. It comes back to where it’s just a game. ‘Hey, man, I don’t have running water at the house, I don’t have electricity, I haven’t taken a shower in two days, I don’t know where my next meal is going to come from.’

“People literally didn’t know. There wasn’t anything around. You had to go out of town to get stuff or you had to go get MREs from the FEMA tent. But we made it work. We finished out the season. That team played hard.”

Now, a year later, there are still concerns. Edwards worries about the timber industry but doesn’t think the full affects will be realized because crews are still getting trees off the ground.

There is still plenty of construction to be done, too. Edwards graduated from FSU in 2011 and is in his sixth year at Blountstown High, holding down a variety of roles from physical education teacher to a coach for football, baseball, weightlifting and track and field.

One problem for Blountstown is the availability of gymnasiums. The high school gym’s roof is still damaged and they haven’t replaced the floor, Edwards said. The middle school volleyball and high school volleyball teams, as well as middle school basketball and high school basketball teams are all competing for gym time.

“It’s tough on the kids,” Edwards said. “It’s tough on the parents. It’s tough on the coaches. It’s just a massive headache.”

Edwards has many long days between teaching physical education without a gym on 90-degree days and coaching. But he remains positive about the outlook of Blountstown, the work ethic of the people and the willingness to help neighbors.

“We’re very resourceful, we’ll make it happen,” Edwards said.

Three trees hit the Sweeneys house in Marianna (photo by Sweeney family)

In Marianna: A high cost for cleaning up

George and Marilyn Sweeney picked October 2018 as a time to take a vacation to North Carolina. And it was a good idea in theory.

When the roads had opened up after Hurricane Michael, the Sweeneys drove back to Marianna. And what they saw was hard to fathom.

They built their house in 1977 and lived in a development with wooded lots. And in hours, the hurricane changed that.

“You couldn’t even see the house after the storm,” George Sweeney said.

Said Marilyn: “It took 10 people, three chainsaws and two tractors to get to the house.”

Three trees hit the house: one landing in the den, another in a bedroom and the last in the porch. The Sweeneys moved in with their daughter in Tallahassee from October through April and made the commute on Interstate-10 as often as they needed.

Insurance covered the damage to the roof. And a week before the one-year anniversary of the hurricane, the Sweeneys had a construction crew finishing up the outside of the house. Last on the list will be painting.

But there is no insurance for trees down on the property. And there were trees down everywhere. The Sweeneys paid $26,000 to have all of the trees cut up and hauled off.

“We’re not atypical at all,” George said.

The Sweeneys love Marianna. George has been active with the local FSU booster club and recalls early meetings with coach Bobby Bowden in the 1970s.

After settling into life in Jackson County, they now recognize what has changed since the storm. There is a timber industry that is 75 percent gone in the county, George says. Marilyn mentions fast food restaurants that close early because service jobs can’t be filled. The reason? There just aren’t as many apartments or available housing.

Marilyn laments the lost trees and they both say the air conditioner runs non-stop as what was once a wooded lot is now without shade.

“It seems a bit selfish to say you miss the landscape,” Marilyn said. “But we took it for granted that the trees would always be there and that increased the shock of them being gone. On the positive side, we have an opportunity to see some beautiful sunrises and sunsets that were obscured by the trees that surrounded us.”

In the Big Bend: Long-term outlook

Roy Baker sees a view of many counties as an executive with Opportunity Florida, which aims to spark economic development in Jackson County as well as others along the panhandle.

The damage to his home was relatively minor by comparison. A tree hit the roofline, landing on the air conditioner. The ceiling has to be fixed in the bathroom but his roof is repaired. But he hasn’t gotten on the list to get sheet rock replaced.

“There are people out there in worse shape than us,” Baker said. “We’ve been in the house every day since other than me traveling for business.”

There is the story of the 82-year-old woman who just recently had to be coaxed out of living in her truck since the storm. The woman was talked into receiving help from charities, one of which arranged for a camper to be placed on her property.

Businesses are coming back. But there remains a shortage of apartments and homes.

“It all comes back to housing,” said Baker, who attended FSU before graduating from FAU and frequently returns to Tallahassee for business and to watch football games. “If we don’t create housing, we’re losing people. If I go out to recruit employers to move to NW Florida, if they go to recruit special talent, they have to have a place to live.”

Baker was part of a group that visited Mississippi in May. They met with officials who oversaw the long-term recovery of Hurricane Katrina since 2005. There are no quick solutions, they learned.

“They’re still working on it 14 years later,” Baker said. “They told us this is a marathon – this isn’t a sprint. You have to lay the ground work and get things in place and go forward.

“We’re going day by day. We plan hard. We push hard. Work forward.”

Go to rebuild850.org to learn more, volunteer or donate to Hurricane Michael relief efforts. Smith and WJHG TV in Panama City will have a two-hour special airing Thursday from 5-7 p.m. CT. You can watch a live stream at WJHG.com.

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