News Herald Copy Editor Patrick McCreless thought he had seen bad storms before in his home state of Alabama, but when the rain came in sideways and the wind started pulling up trees by the roots, he knew Hurricane Michael would be different.
A full seven days were all I got to see of Panama City before Hurricane Michael changed it forever.
I moved from my home state of Alabama to work at The News Herald in part because I wanted a change of pace. The hurricane gave me a full helping of change on Oct. 10 and then some.
I started that day much like I had many others that had potential natural disasters to cover. Being from Alabama, I’ve had my fair share of tornadoes to prepare for and write about.
Knowing that a large storm was possible later in the day, I stayed home and planned to come into the office that afternoon to work through the evening covering any potential aftermath. Instead what I got was an up close glimpse at the raw power of a Category 5 hurricane.
It didn’t seem so bad at first.
The early minutes of the storm looked and felt like just another of the countless strong thunderstorms I’d lived through over the years. Then the rain turned sideways and the windows began shaking.
“Well that’s new,” I thought to myself, as I touched the vibrating glass of the sliding door to my townhouse’s back yard. It was near that moment when I saw that this was far more than any strong storm I’d experienced or would likely ever experience again.
Looking through that same glass sliding door, the view suddenly shifted to a thick, soupy gray of gushing wind and rain. All I could discern were the black shapes of the large oak trees in the neighborhood.
Then one of those trees toppled over. Ripped out of the ground, roots and all.
Then another. And another.
I saw one fall onto the roof of a nearby home. But I couldn’t hear any of it. The wind, the rain and the shaking of the house overwhelmed all other sounds.
I’d long since lost power and cell phone service, so sending or receiving any information on the situation wasn’t an option. All there was to do was keep watching until it was over.
It seemed to end as quickly as it began.
With no phone service, my immediate thought was to rally at The News Herald. Stepping outside, I quickly discovered that my car was blocked on both sides by downed trees. Luckily, I’d decided against moving my car to avoid limbs from a nearby tree when the storm first started. The spot I had considered moving it to was now home to a downed oak tree.
With no other option, I pulled on the rubber boots I’d bought the night before in case there was major flooding and began my 2-mile walk to The News Herald office. By that point, a few of the neighbors had ventured from their homes to see if everyone was OK. Walking through the neighborhood, it was clear nobody needed emergency assistance, so I kept going.
The majority of my trek was on Balboa Avenue, and it was fraught with obstacles. Large trees crisscrossed the road every few feet. Some I could walk around while others I had to hurdle.
It was only when I got to the intersection of 15th Street that I really started to understand the true scope of what had happened. Buildings all up and down both sides of the street were severely damaged or leveled. Power poles were snapped like twigs, their wires spread over the ground like blackened vines.
At this point the rubber boots came in handy, as much of the intersection of 15th Street and Balboa Avenue had become a small pond.
Passing the intersection and continuing on, I started seeing more people. I remember clearly observing how so many of them just looked dumbfounded and appeared to be just wandering aimlessly — like they could no longer remember where they were or how they got there.
After turning onto 11th Street and circumventing another large, downed tree, a car drove up beside me from the opposite direction and shockingly, I heard someone yell my name. It was Tim Thompson, publisher of The News Herald. He offered me a ride to the office and though I was already more than halfway there, the assistance was welcomed.
What I came to was not what I expected.
One side of The News Herald building had partially collapsed in on itself. Inside, part of the ceiling had fallen in on the newsroom. The carpet was soaked. It was pitch dark in places and dead quiet.
But it wasn’t empty.
There I found a few employees who’d ridden out the storm at the office, slightly shaken but unharmed. Other news staff soon arrived. Between all of us, we only had one working AT&T phone. What little information we gathered about the devastation, we passed along through that phone to an editor who was outside the disaster zone and helped The News Herald publish a paper for the next day despite the situation.
After planning on what to do the next day, we all went our separate ways. Another editor drove me home. Fortunately, people with chainsaws had cut all the trees that had blocked my walk just a few hours earlier, making the drive back easy.
I spent the night alone in the dark with a flashlight, a book and an eerie quiet, wondering what tomorrow would bring and when things would return to normal.
It's a year later and in some ways, I’m still wondering.