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I’ve lived through (and covered) many hurricanes in Florida. Hurricane Michael was different.  4 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

In the 13 years I’ve lived in Florida I’ve been through hurricanes both as a reporter and as an observer.

Hurricane Michael was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Photographer Andrew West and I left Tallahassee early on Wednesday to make the drive to Panama City to hunker down in a local hotel, await the passage of the approaching storm and then cover the aftermath.

We were lucky we got to do that.

Before Michael made landfall, Andrew and I drove around Panama City Beach, getting photos and video of the roiling waters and crashing monstrous waves.

The reported size of the storm didn’t give us pause; Andrew and I had chased Hurricane Matthew up the East Coast in 2016, doing live social media reporting atop a bridge in 60 to 70 mile per hour winds and wading through hip-deep water to talk to homeowners.

We drove around Fort Myers in 2017 during the passage of the eye of Hurricane Irma stopping alongside a building at one point to stay safe. Hurricane Michael didn’t seem like a cause for special worry.

That changed, fast.

Around noon, the cable service at our hotel died. Then the power went out. Out in the parking lot, a light pole pushed by the increasingly violent wind slowly canted over against an SUV.

Things escalated with a speed beyond comprehension.

With a huge crash and a shudder of the entire hotel, portions of the roof started coming apart, landing with a thud on cars and trucks in the parking lot.

Another news media person and I walked into the entranceway of the hotel, where despite both front doors being tied shut, we had to hold them closed with all of our might as the howling wind and rain tried to suck them open.

With water dripping through the first-floor ceiling, some guests started piling their mattresses against windows along the northern wall as the powerful hurricane’s steady cyclonic winds drove water through the sills.

Shortly after another loud bang, I started smelling the acrid odor of natural gas. A faint, rushing noise could also be heard outside the hotel’s utility room.

“Is that gas?” I asked a hotel clerk, who was on the phone. “Oh, my God. It’s gas. I gotta go. I gotta call 911,” she told her caller.

I listened as she called emergency services asking for the hotel guests to be evacuated due to the gas leak. That was not to be.

For the next two hours people milled about the first-floor corridor as water poured through the breached roof. Many people concentrated at the back of the hotel, inside a stairwell that was deemed a safe haven in case things got worse.

The sickly sweet aroma of marijuana drifted throughout the hotel, so much so that people began yelling to stop smoking in case a spark from a vape device or open flame set off the gas.

Hotel guests seemed dazed and worried. Little knots of guests, some families, some friends, some just thrown together by the disaster, lurched from room to room as more of the roof peeled off and the water poured into the first floor in ever-increasing amounts. A small river formed on the carpeted hallway.

The wind from Michael blew steady for two hours — a veritable jet-engine blast — first from the east and north and then, as the eyewall passed, from the reverse direction.

The effect on everything was immediate and dramatic — simple devastation.

Trees, some hundreds of feet tall, snapped midway, as did nearly every utility pole. The metal roof of our hotel peeled off strip by strip with insulation and plaster smashing into guests’ vehicles and plywood roofing boards studded with nails flying about like paper airplanes.

Andrew and I hunkered down in that stairwell with dozens of other guests, talking, exchanging worried glances, reassuring each other and just hoping, always hoping.

Uncertainty in the face of danger

There were times during the constant sounds and vibrations of the hotel coming apart at the seams that Andrew and I didn’t know if this was going to end well. People around us were praying, muttering, arguing, holding each other and asking us constantly what we knew, which was basically nothing.

Neither Andrew nor I had anything to compare this to. None of the other storms we had covered or experienced came close. This was a powerful, monster of a storm.

The wind abated about 3 p.m., enough for people to start making their way outside.

Damage to vehicles seemed a simple game of luck. Our rental SUV got away with a few dents while an SUV to our immediate right had the entire rear deck lid blown in and smashed. One car might have lost a windshield while its neighbor seemed unaffected.

Andrew and I gathered our gear and cleared nail-filled boards, siding, downspouts and other debris from the front of the SUV.

After exchanging words of encouragement with several of those who had hunkered down with us — “good job”, “be careful”, “stay safe” — Andrew and I took off to survey the damage.

That two-hour, wind-wracked period — unexpected, terrifying, worrisome and prompting some soul-searching — is something Andrew and I will never forget.

 

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