PANAMA CITY — Bay County and Panama City have been forever changed by Hurricane Michael, State Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis said Thursday, and even essential items like power and medical care are going to take time.

 

The damage is so severe and communications so difficult that Patronis, whose family owns Captain Anderson’s restaurant, said he did not have an accurate number on possible fatalities. But, he said the swath of devastation that stretches from a few miles west of the Hathaway Bridge to Apalachicola is unfathomable after taking the brunt of a (strong Category 4) storm.

“The intensity of what Michael did, it was a Category 5 when it hit Bay County, it’s going to be a while,” he said. “They did a drone flight over Mexico Beach and it’s gone. Just gone. It looks like someone took a shovel and scraped it off the map.”

Search and rescue teams under Patronis’ umbrella of authority had cleared 1,800 homes by day’s end Thursday, making sure there were no injured inside. But Patronis said it’s not realistic to think that more people didn’t perish in the storm.

“There were 350,000 people in the path of the storm, and there were 6,000 people in shelters,” Patronis said. “You can do simple math, that’s an awful lot of people unaccounted for.”

The severity of the damage across the region, though, means restoration of power and water is only the beginning of what will be a reshaping of Panama City and the entire county.

“There’s going to be a lot of people who are going to be unemployed — remember Hurricane Katrina brought waves of people here from Louisiana and Mississippi, and some went back and some stayed. The same thing is going to happen here,” he said. “Except there’s nothing to come back to. Panama City and Bay County are going to change.”

A Verizon outage across the entire area made matters worse because most of the key players in disaster response, including Sheriff Tommy Ford and his chief deputy, had Verizon service and were unable to communicate with each other.

For the moment, though, Patronis is worried about medical care. People in need of medications, and treatment of anyone injured after the storm.

“Here's my concern, we’ve got nowhere to treat people if they get sick,” he said. “We’re going to have two hospitals in the Panhandle closed because they can’t provide a service.”

And that means people trying to get back into Bay County definitely should not come if they require medication, like insulin or anything else that needs refilling.

“Do not come here,” he said. “Stay where you’re at. We’ve got ambulances from Louisiana and across the Southeast coming here, so stay where you’re at. People trying to come in here is going to take an already delicate situation and make it worse.”

The damage to Bay County and Panama City is so severe that there’s no way to tell when power and other critical services may get back online. While literally thousands of utility workers from across the Southeast are gathered here or are on their way, and despite the resources the state and federal governments have, Patronis said nothing’s going to happen fast.

“On the power, let’s just take it like this, there are 4,000-plus utility workers that will be here, and they’re all supporting Gulf Power in the power restoration, and that’s in addition to the contracted people,” Patronis said. ”But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see when you drive down the road that nearly all of them only have one lane — if that — because nearly every power pole and line is down, and the first thing they’re going to have to do is clear the debris from the roads.

“Then, they all have to be surveyed and engineered, and we have to know that it’s safe to bring in power.”

Patronis also wanted to note:

• Those wanting to donate to the relief efforts can do so online through the Florida Disaster Fund overseen by Volunteer Florida

• There are numerous tree removal services in the area, some reputable, some not. He suggested trying not to deal with anyone demanding cash, or at least know that if you lose your money it’s unlikely you’ll ever get it back. “I think they sprouted out of the ground in the last five hours,” he said around 2 p.m. Friday. “If it sounds too good to be true, it is.”

• Anyone who is coming back to town should buy an AT&T or other non-Verizon burner phone and bring it with them.

• A tractor trailer filled with ice and water arrived at Captain Anderson’s Friday morning and, “it evaporated in 40 minutes” from people in need. Another tractor trailer will be there Saturday at 8:30 a.m. with similar goods.

• J. Trumble Sr., who is executive director of the Florida Department of Transportation and also the owner of Culligan Water, had two water trucks driven to the Dollar General at Cherry Street and Palo Alto Avenue Friday morning, and was giving the water away. Trumble, wearing his FDOT hat, said it’s almost impossible to tell how long the recovery will take, and he has never seen anything to even compare this to.

• The major damage to the west seemed to stop somewhere around the Hombre Golf Course, Patronis said. The traffic light just past it is working and there is power from there west. He said that condominiums and hotels west of Pier Park fared well, and all have numerous rooms available for people who need them.

• The Smith-Lansing Power Plant took damage and there was feeder damage, which will complicate power restoration efforts.

• If you’re in a house that’s habitable, stay close. FEMA and emergency personnel are spreading through neighborhoods.

• If you have limbs and debris in the road in front of your home, it will help and save time if you can move them out of the way for power line workers. “But, if you’ve got a tree on your house, don’t do it yourself,” Patronis said, reminding people that there are no emergency treatment facilities available should somebody injure themselves.