EDITOR'S NOTE: Gatehouse Media Florida Staff Writer Savannah Evanoff and photographer Michael Snyder drove from Fort Walton Beach to Panama City on Friday to deliver supplies to their colleagues at the Panama City News Herald and report on the area.
Along the entire drive to Panama City, Michael Snyder and I discussed how lucky we are in Fort Walton Beach to have not suffered the aftermath from Hurricane Michael.
Luck seems like such a strange word to use under the circumstances. Luck couldn't possibly have anything to do with this level of devastation.
As we drove through South Walton, we saw some trees had fallen but the majority of buildings incurred only minor wind damage.
Each town we crossed seemed unluckier than the one before, with more trees uprooted, fences fallen and structures damaged.
The first foreshadowing of what was ahead appeared with the collapsed roof of a Texaco gas station. It would only get worse.
Parts of Panama City Beach still had power, and stores were open — accepting only cash. We tried to use a restroom in a store, only to realize that despite having electricity, there was no water. The grocery stores were well-stocked with non-perishables and water.
We passed a couple of gas stations, with lines so long they snaked onto the streets next to them.
The Hathaway Bridge from Panama City Beach to Panama City was definitely one of the distinctions between the damaged areas and those left untouched. It appeared to act as a barrier for the neighborhoods behind it, as some houses looked safe from the damage.
Then, Panama City.
The destruction was eerily precise, with perfectly intact homes and trees less than 10 yards from damaged ones. It’s difficult to wrap your mind around the harsh separations.
Golden Chick, a fast-food restaurant in Panama City, looked the same as I imagine it did the first day the doors opened. Next door, Dunkin Donuts was less easily recognizable.
In some areas, the angle of the trees even revealed the circular nature of the storm.
One automobile repair shop had so many power lines, wires and insulation inside, it looked like the inside of a computer modem. The Panama City News Herald building was a similar sight, with no way to trudge through its crushed interior.
Katie Landeck, a Panama City News Herald staff writer, said after the storm passed through, they reported from the parking lot.
She assured us it got worse the farther you drove into Panama City. The worst damage she had seen in the Panama City area was in Callaway, which appeared to be hit the hardest.
More trees were on the ground than in it. Some parted homes, and others crushed the cars beneath them.
“Panama City might not have shade for 50 years,” Landeck said.
The most pressing issue for people right now is communication, Landeck said. She could only communicate through Twitter and Google Hangouts on her phone. Verizon cellphone towers were down, so many people couldn’t reach their families and friends or request help, she said.
Because of communication issues, Landeck was able to help connect the Springfield mayor with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the first time after the hurricane, she said.
Landeck’s home was windowless, but still intact. One of her coworkers was not so lucky; she won’t return to her home, Landeck said.
One mobile home in the area where we dropped off supplies was missing an entire wall. The recliner and lamp were visible from the street, giving it the appearance of a living room set for a TV sitcom. This shred of normalcy seemed out of place amid the forest of broken trees that used to be a neighborhood.
Joe Burgoyne was at the Panama City News Herald, assisting Phoenix Restoration with mitigation in the area.
“I went to Tyndall (Air Force Base) yesterday,” Burgoyne said. “It looked like a precision air strike … it looked like 100 tornadoes.”
We were only able to talk to a few people in Panama City, but the distinctions in their dispositions were as apparent as the ones noticeable amid the destruction.
Some were in OK spirits, grateful to be alive.
Some even had a sliver of humor left in them. Snyder photographed a sign planted atop a collapsed building that read: “Michael who?”
Some people were devastated. One woman was standing outside the ruins of her former business, crying. It was hard to watch.
Some seemed numb. They had accepted that this post-apocalyptic environment was their new normal.
Some had no home. Some had no workplace. They had nowhere to go.
What humbled me most was the resilience of the residents and reporters in the area.
"It's just stuff," I heard one woman say to her family.
None of the staff writers at the Panama City News Herald asked us to take them back with us. Their reporting wasn’t done.
One of my friends from college reports for a TV news station in Panama City. I texted her to ask if she needed anything, and she firmly (but sweetly) denied wanting any help. Why? There were people who needed it more, she said.
Other reporters asked nothing of us while we were there. I didn’t get the feeling anyone was leaving Panama City anytime soon.
The destruction from Hurricane Michael is not just yesterday’s news. It’s today’s news. It’s tomorrow’s news.
In journalism, we try to avoid clichés, but one sums it up.
Looking at the circumstances around Panama City, it truly feels as if there is no end in sight.