Service task forces start assisting in Hurricane Michael recovery
“There isn’t anything that hasn’t been touched or damaged.”
Panama City, Florida – The sawyers and engineers, swampers and commanders arrived in the dark Thursday unable to fully grasp what Hurricane Michael had wrought. But there was no mistaking the devastation when the two-dozen U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers woke Friday in this Panhandle town no longer recognizable.
Virtually every tree for miles was down or damaged. Roofs disappeared from homes and businesses along U.S. 98 only to be found a block away. Steel-legged billboards were pretzel-ed to the ground. Every window in every car at a used-car lot along the main drag was blown out, testament to the storm’s insanely low barometric pressure.
Hurricanes typically leave a hop-scotch pattern of destruction, some spots wiped clean, others unscathed. Michael, though, dropped what looked like 100 side-by-side tornadoes on the Panhandle which proceeded to chew up everything along its journey across northwest Florida.
“When you have no foliage left on the trees, that’s a bad sign,” said Michael Good, the Service’s man in charge of this recovery operation. “It came through here with a head of steam.”
It was time to get to work. First up: Check on Service employees, retirees and volunteers to determine if they were safe and what they needed. Next, secure the Panama City field office. Get generators up and running for lights, computers and, most importantly, fans to dry out the water-logged office.
Workers’ health and safety assured, they still needed water, food, a chainsaw, a tarp or a hug.
The televised images of Michael’s rampage didn’t lie with mile-upon-mile of destruction worsening the further east one drove. Panama City Beach, for example, was largely unscathed with only a few light poles down and roof tiles gone. Cross the Grand Lagoon, though, and an urban nightmare loomed.
Hurricane Michael’s 155 mph winds peeled roofs from grocery stores and bowling alleys, destroyed trailer and RV parks before killing 16 in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. He made landfall at nearby Tyndall Air Force Base, flattening hangars and barracks alike. Mexico Beach, the laid-back port and vacation town, was obliterated. Seven feet of water surged into downtown Apalachicola.
Back in Panama City, hospitals evacuated patients. Convoys of military, utility and emergency vehicles sped along 98 and other thoroughfares. Rumors of looting abounded. National guardsmen manned key intersections. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was in place. All this took place against a constant thrum of generators, chainsaws and sirens.
Most Floridians focused on survival. Lines formed for cases of bottled water and hot meals. Shaken passersby asked, and received, water from the Service’s field office.
The hurricane stripped tiles off the office’s roof. Water soaked the insulation, ceiling tiles and carpets. Mold lurks. The air conditioning units were tossed aside. A dumpster and trailer flipped over.
“There isn’t anything that hasn’t been touched or damaged. I was in [Hurricane] Irma. It’s nothing like this,” said Justin Holsomback, a civil engineer who usually works in the Atlanta office. “Everything – trees, buildings – is damaged. Everything is missing something.”
Sawyers and heavy equipment guys rolled in from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. By Friday evening, a warehouse worth’s of skid steers, backhoes, chainsaws, gas tanks, diesel tanks, cases of water and meals-ready-to-eat stood at the ready. An 18-wheeler with tarps, ladders, generators, lumber, saws and cots was en route from Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Good and crew pored over a computer map pinpointing addresses of employees in need. They carved Panama City in two, bisected by U.S. 231. One task force took the highway’s western side, the other the highway’s eastern side.
“Our main mission is employee safety,” said Good, an assistant fire management officer at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. “We need to take care of them the best we can and make sure they have food and water and access to their homes.”
David McCaghren, a regional safety instructor out of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, headed up Task Force 2. His team comprised sawyers, heavy equipment operators and a law enforcement officer – protection against overzealous and, possibly, desperate storm survivors.
“There are so many hazards out there right now,” warned Rocky Chesser of Okefenokee, the operation’s safety officer. “The emergency room is over-run. Just be safe.”
Task Force 2 wended slowly up 98 and side streets. A Family of God Baptist Church lost its roof as did the First United Methodist Church across the street. The caravan stopped. Downed trees and power lines made the road leading to the first visit impassable. So McCaghren walked the final blocks. The house was largely intact, but gas was leaking.
“I’m glad to see you guys today,” a slightly bedraggled woman told McCaghren’s crew. “It’s all a mess.”
The remaining half-dozen homes weren’t in bad shape. A punctured roof at one. Trees blocking access to another. A car port smashed. A hole where a skylight once sat. McCaghren promised to return soon with the needed generators, plywood, tarps and gas.
The rest of Panama City wasn’t as lucky. The Fish and Wildlife caravan returned to the field office through streets clogged with debris, traffic and misery.
“We made a lot of progress today,” said Good at day’s end as the troops gathered under a crescent moon. “Thanks for your hard work out there. We’ll do it again tomorrow.”
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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