PANAMA CITY — They worried about their pets, their toys, Wi-Fi. They were scared sometimes, or nervous, or just plain bored.
They are the young survivors of Hurricane Michael, kids who witnessed one of the strongest storms on record ravage the place they call home. Months after the October storm, residents of Bay County — the epicenter of the destruction — were still grappling with piles of debris, job loss and limited housing, forcing some to relocate.
But by November, schools had reopened for the kids who remained, including nine fourth- and fifth-graders at Parker Elementary School who sat down in December to tell their storm stories. The school absorbed students from neighboring Oscar Patterson Elementary School, destroyed in the storm. They call their blended student body of 480 kids “P&P.”
So far, the story of Hurricane Michael has been told by the grownups — more than 40 people dead, damage estimated in the billions of dollars.
Here, edited for length and clarity, is what some of the children have to say about the storm.
DURING THE HURRICANE
RJ Cywinski, 11, fifth grade: "We had to evacuate. It almost felt like the storm was following us as we drove down the highway. We landed at a hotel that’s — " he forms air quotes with his fingers — “‘non-smoking’ when actually (it was) full of smokers, and our pets did not like it. They were sad, and it was hard. We have a lot of pets. Three cats and four dogs. One of them is practically a horse. When he walks, he gallops. And when he runs, he's faster than anyone."
James Russell, 9, fourth grade: "I saw a lot of destruction like, I saw a tree fall down where we were. I ate packable cereal. I always drunk milk with it. And then in the afternoon I always eat peanut butter sandwiches."
Jakar Miller, 10, fifth grade: "My parents heard that there was a hurricane coming and I was like, 'Mom, let's evacuate,' and she was like, 'No, we survivors.' When we stayed, the power went off and then a few moments later, our windows broke — one of them — and then there was a lot of wind coming in and it started to leak on the roof. It started leaking everywhere. We had to leave our house during the storm. Our porch was all gone. It was covering the front door. So me and my mom had to go out through the back door. We were crawling through the trees and jumping, going over trees. We went down the street. Luckily these people were outside and they said we could stay there until the hurricane was over … I was like, 'Is this a dream? Or is this really happening?'
"But it was happening."
SOUNDS OF THE STORM
Izabella Vazquez, 10, fifth grade, puffs her cheeks and blows hard, then slaps her hands together.
Jakar hums through his teeth like a race car accelerating.
R.J.: "You know those books — well, I’m not sure if everybody’s heard this, but I’m a bookworm so — have you ever heard in books how they described the wind as 'howling'? This one literally sounded like a pack of wolves were howling. And I hear these trees that, it sounds like you’re cracking a toothpick in your ear. And next thing you know, there's a tree on your car."
AFTER THE HURRICANE
R.J.: "There's black mold in my room. There's black mold in the garage. We had to throw away tons of toys and books that we made family memories on."
Izabella: "In Mexico Beach, we have two businesses, a pizza place and a parasailing one. At our pizza place ... it got destroyed, and when I first seen it I started to cry because that is where I earned my first $20."
Caylen Nguyen, 10, fifth grade: "There was a tree on top of my car. It was getting crushed. A tree went through our house where we would have been staying. It was in a closet that me, my dad, my whole family would have been in during the hurricane. So it would have went right through and killed us but luckily we evacuated kind of late."
R.J.: "We had to cut into the wall. My dad had the pleasure of sledge-hammering the bathroom wall."
Izabella: "No fair. I got to kick down a gate and pull down a door, but it was fun. The door involved a tow truck."
Jessica Debiana Aguilar, 9, fourth grade: "I went back to my house, and when I saw my house the first time, the roof just came out of my house. And my heart felt like it was just broken because I miss my house. My dog loved his house, too, and he missed it. He was crying. He was trying to make me feel better, but he misses his house, too."
WHILE SCHOOL WAS OUT
Izabella: "Me and my cousins, we put on a little dance show and then when we wouldn't do that, I was playing with my stepbrother’s snake ... We rescued four ducks and four chickens that were at the dock. One of them, I noticed that it broke its leg, so I got two Popsicle sticks and put it on its leg and put tape around it, and then two weeks later it was walking normal."
Deashia Tubbs, 9, fourth grade: "Survivor!" Then, to the tune of Destiny's Child's Survivor, “‘I'm not 'gon give up.’"
Cristian Pizano, 11, fifth grade: "After the storm it was actually kind of boring. I went to Alabama, but all I did was get in trouble."
Jessica: "When it was Thanksgiving, we actually went to Atlanta and celebrated and we had fun. I was tired of seeing the destruction, so we went to Atlanta, and I felt happier there with my cousins."
Jakar: "After the hurricane it was really boring. My mom's room was the only thing that was okay, so then I had to sleep in there with her. And then we had to eat canned food beans."
How many cans do you think you ate?
Jakar: "Eh, one."
Deashia: "I ate at least 10."
Izabella: "You want to hear a fun fact? Refried beans are only fried once." (It's true.)
RETURNING TO SCHOOL
"Scary." "Funny." "Awkward."
R.J.: "I kept on hearing rumors that once we got back to school they would take away our summer. My dad, he said, 'Yeah, you’re going to have, hmm, one day. You sleep one day and oh, look, you're sixth grade! Yay!' I was just so scared they were going to take away my summer, and it would have sucked."
Jakar: "We got our internet and everything back on. I was in the middle of watching TV and my mom came in my room and said, 'Oh, I got some good news for you. You’re going to school tomorrow. No staying up late.' And I’m like, 'Nooooo! Why?!'"
Izabella: "I’ve made new friends from Patterson."
Jessica, a former Patterson student on showing up to a new school: (I was) "kind of nervous and scared."
Jakar, another former Patterson student: "It’s really not that nervous if you only do it once."
Cristian: "Just don’t think about it. I’m not thinking about it."
Jessica: "My dad is thinking, he already bought a house, but we’re going to move (and go to a new school), I think he said months or years because that house that my dad bought — it was kind of damaged a little bit. But it’s hard to make new friends again and again."
THEIR BURNING QUESTIONS
Deashia: "Why did the toy store close before the storm came? ... How do people get on roofs to fix roofs?"
Izabella: "Why am I so cute?"
Cristian: "Can we do shout-outs?"
Jakar: "Can I stay in Tampa with you guys?"
WHAT ABOUT ANOTHER HURRICANE?
Cristian: "My mom said if it's two or above, she's leaving."
Jakar: "I'm too handsome for it."
"No." "No." "Um ... Not really."
Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.