Hurricane Michael aftermath: affected students assess damage, fraternity reaches out to town in need
By Danielle Brown
UWF students from the Panama City area are attempting to recover from Hurricane Michael’s overwhelming damage and one fraternity skipped the homecoming tailgate to assist a battered community.
The storm reached category 1 status on Oct. 8 with maximum winds of 75 mph that quickly reached 150 mph on Oct. 10, making it a category 4 hurricane. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for many residents of northwest Florida and some placed under a voluntary evacuation stayed put to ride out the storm.
Kimberli Yager, a senior at UWF, was staying with her boyfriend in Panama City before her father convinced her to evacuate at the last minute to Bay Medical Hospital the morning the storm made landfall.
“I was lucky I made it in time,” Yager said. “it was down-pouring and my boyfriend and I had walked around the entire hospital trying to get let in so we could stay the night and wait out the storm. As Michael hit us, it formed several tornadoes that tore up the hospital and completely destroyed our cars and the homes near us.”
After the storm had passed, those who sought shelter in the hospital were allowed to leave to see the damage that had been inflicted on the city.
“It was like a horror movie,” Yager said. “We went from a first world country to a third world country like nothing. My boyfriend’s family lost everything. They had just finished remodeling their second floor of their house and now everything is gone.”
The National Hurricane Center reported there would be life-threatening storm surge along the northeastern Gulf Coast, a storm surge that reached residents of Okaloosa County to the west of the storm.
“We started to notice the water was rising a couple days before the hurricane hit,” said Katie McLain, a senior at UWF who lives in Niceville off of Choctawhatchee Bay.
McLain’s neighborhood did not see much damage besides a few fallen branches and a couple power outages in surrounding homes. She said her family was tracking the storm and were relieved when it didn’t change directions overnight and come straight for them like Hurricane Opal did in 1995.
One Panama City family was split up after some decided to evacuate to Pensacola and others decided to stay and face the storm. A junior at UWF, who wished to remain unnamed, opened her doors to her brother and his wife while trying to remain in contact with the members of their family who stayed behind.
“My mom was in an evacuation zone but my grandparents were not so she and my stepdad stayed with them Tuesday night,” the student said.
Maintaining contact with her family in Panama City became increasingly difficult as the storm progressed and cell phone reception worsened. She and her brother were in a panic after listening to the heartbreaking few words their mother said before the phone call was cut off.
“The phone service was going in and out and all I could hear her say was ‘the roof is gone and I love you’,” she said. “My brother and I were in a panic because there was nothing we could do. Later that night, we finally got a call from them and they said they all made it and they were having to sleep in their cars.”
With the influx of first responders and volunteers to Panama City and Mexico Beach, Alpha Tau Omega assembled a group of brothers to help the smaller communities that had been impacted just as harshly as the big cities. The chapter opted to skip the homecoming tailgate and drive to a small town outside of Panama City that needed assistance.
“We went to Grand Ridge on Saturday to help with a hurricane relief event,” Alpha Tau Omega chapter head, Kip Wynne said. “We helped bag food, toiletries, and other basic necessities that were donated and gave those donations to families in a drive-thru arrangement. It was definitely eye-opening to see the true aftermath of the hurricane.”
Grand Ridge is 70 miles outside of Panama City and has a population of roughly one thousand people who have been put out of work following the storm. Donations from surrounding cities and states, including Kentucky, have been helping some residents stay alive.
“People didn’t work last week. They don’t have money,” city manager, J.R. Moneyham told Kentucky news station, WKYT. “If it wasn’t for [the donations], I don’t know how I would survive.”
The hurricane had varying effects on the majority of the Panhandle which encouraged the region to come together and overcome the devastation.
“Almost everyone in the chapter knew someone who had been impacted by the hurricane,” Spencer Jones, member of Alpha Tau Omega, said. “The victims of the hurricane were not some random people half a state away. They were our classmates and friends.”
The chapter saw an opportunity to help a small, destroyed town and didn’t hesitate when making the decision to skip the homecoming tailgate.
“We all had a passion and drive to serve and assist the residents of Grand Ridge,” Jones said. “We have five home games in a season, but you only get so many chances in your life to truly make an impact in a community.”
In the aftermath, donations are crucial to the areas with the severe damage. Many have lost everything and need all the help they can get.
“People here have nothing,” Yager said. “They don’t even have beds to sleep on or places to stay anymore, it’s awful. I think if people wanted to help, they could either donate or collect supplies if they really wanted to help us.”
The repercussions of the storm are still being dealt with while the community finds solace in their shared hardships.
“The community is truly amazing,” Yager said. “I think we will rebuild, but we will always remember Michael.”