In Florida, hurricane season is just part of life. Many locals don’t leave their homes to avoid even massive storms, choosing instead to hunker down and ride it out.
So, when news stations reported in October of 2018 that Hurricane Michael was expected to hit the Florida Panhandle, it wasn’t surprising when many residents opted to shelter in place. Travis Watkins, manager of the Mercury test facility in Panama City, and Mercury-sponsored B.A.S.S. angler Drew Benton were among the Floridians of Panama City who opted to ride it out. The two had never met, but they both survived similar challenges from Hurricane Michael.
Here are their perspectives.
BEFORE THE STORM . . .
“Being from Florida, we have hurricanes on the regular,” said Benton. “So, hearing about a storm coming on TV is not a big deal to us. It’s typical to stay, and that’s kind of the mindset that a lot of Floridians have toward hurricanes. Nobody left. It caught everybody off guard.
“We went to bed the night before the storm thinking it was a Category 2. We didn't anticipate it intensifying the way it did. We prepared as we normally would for a storm of that magnitude, but what hit us . . . no one could be prepared for that.”
“Thirty-six to 24 hours before the storm, we were told to expect a Category 2 to 3 storm,” said Watkins. “Just six hours before Hurricane Michael was expected to hit, news began predicting the storm may reach Category 5 levels.”
When Hurricane Michael hit Panama City just after noon on October 10, 2018, residents were not prepared for the catastrophic damage experienced by the city. A Category 2 to Category 3 storm was expected; what the region got was a destructive Category 5 hurricane – the biggest ever to hit Panama City.
With so little advance notice regarding the intensity of the storm, many residents simply didn’t have enough time to evacuate. With only two-lane roads leading out of town, the probability of getting caught in traffic was high. For Benton and Watkins, their families factored greatly into their decisions to stay, rather than risk getting caught in the storm in a vehicle. Both, however, said they would have evacuated had they received more advance notice of the storm’s severity.
DURING THE STORM . . .
For hours, Hurricane Michael ravaged Panama City homes. Benton and his family spent the duration of the storm in the hallway of his brick ranch home, and he likened the sound of the storm to a freight train barreling down the track.
“I've never experienced pressure and a trembling of the earth the way it did,” said Benton. “You could feel the house shaking and vibrating. I knew it was getting bad when we had about six trees already on the roof and you couldn't see a tree standing upright outside any window of the house. Everything was either blown over or snapped off.”
Meanwhile, Watkins and his family found a quiet zone insulated from the worst of the storm by huddling together in a small office on the south of their home. But the north side of Watkin’s home was getting hammered.
“At one point the upstairs back doors blew in, shattering the glass,” said Watkins. “The northside bay doors downstairs also blew in. I opened the door to the office to see what happened. I saw the doors blown wide open. So, I foolishly tried to run out there and close them and just as I was about to get the doors closed all the way, another massive gust of wind came, and it literally chucked me across the room.
“It's a defeating feeling, knowing that the doors were open and water was just pouring in, and there was nothing I could do about it.
AFTER THE STORM . . .
“After the storm? Words can’t describe after the storm,” said Watkins.
As the storm began to dissipate, Benton ventured outside to survey the damage. He began cutting through fallen trees and debris to make his way to his parents’ home just a few blocks from his own, before moving on to his grandparents’ house. Benton recalls that it took him nearly six hours to cover a few miles.
“It was just incredible, the devastation,” said Benton. “People were in shock. And if I close my eyes and put myself back there, I’m a little bit scared, to be honest with you. And that’s hard to say because there’s not much that shakes me.”
“Those first steps outside your front door, looking at the same sites you’ve seen thousands of times, nothing looked the same,” said Watkins. “It's really hard to put into words; it's like the storm picked up your house and put it somewhere else.”
Contacting loved ones by cell phone wasn’t an option after the storm. Cell towers and power lines were down, and they wouldn’t be up and running for weeks. Once Watkins was confident his family was safe, he focused on his employees he couldn’t reach by phone.
“You can’t dial 911, phones don’t work,” said Watkins. “You can’t call the police. There was no help. Not being able to reach my guys on the phone was, I mean, I really just needed to make sure they were all okay.”
Watkins used his dirt bike to navigate the destruction and check on his guys. He initiated mandatory 9 a.m. daily meetings at the Mercury test site to ensure all employees and their families were okay and were getting the supplies they needed. In the days that followed Hurricane Michael, Watkins and his crew banded together to share supplies and tarp each other’s homes to prevent further damage.
“It was like the Wild West,” said Benton. “Just getting around was a struggle.
“Nearly 90 percent of the structures in this county were compromised. There were just not enough people to do all the work. So instead of waiting around, I went to work with Anytime Tree Removal and started cutting trees off houses.”
TODAY . . .
The home that Watkins and his family were living in at the time of the storm is still standing but remains unlivable. He and his family have since moved into another home.
While Benton’s home had some damage from trees falling on the roof, it survived the storm intact. Benton’s parents were not so lucky; their home just a couple blocks away is now stripped down to the studs, and they have since moved in with Benton and his wife and son.
Benton and Watkins have both talked at length about how the community came together after the storm to help family, friends and neighbors, and how they themselves used their skills to aid their Panama City brethren. Ten months after the storm, repairs are still ongoing. Physical evidence of the storm remains painfully present.
“You have to call places to see if they’re open if you haven’t been there since the storm,” said Watkins. “Many places have just packed up for good.”
Some residents are still waiting for insurance payments to come through to make repairs on their homes. Those lucky enough to have received insurance money are waiting for contractor availability. There is still much work to be done, but there simply aren’t enough people to do the work.
The community remains strong and committed to rebuilding its town. Events like these put things into perspective; homes and belongings can be replaced, family and friends cannot.
If there’s one fact that can be gleaned from Travis’ and Drew’s experiences, they have learned that Panama City is resilient and will rebuild.
To help support natural disaster recovery efforts, visit redcross.org.