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911 calls from Hurricane Michael paint horrifying picture of what it’s like to not evacuate

People always stay during storms. Residents of Bay County hope their stories serve as a warning.
Robert Brock, 27, of Mexico Beach, walks westbound on U.S. 98 after Hurricane Michael. Hours after landfall, he and another person were waving flashlights in the dark, looking for someone who could provide power for a disabled woman's breathing machine. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Robert Brock, 27, of Mexico Beach, walks westbound on U.S. 98 after Hurricane Michael. Hours after landfall, he and another person were waving flashlights in the dark, looking for someone who could provide power for a disabled woman's breathing machine. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published May 30, 2019
Updated Oct. 9, 2019

Hurricane Michael was already toppling trees when the man saw his neighbor collapse in a driveway.

He dialed 911.

“Emergency services. What’s your location?”

“Yes, ma’am, I have a man down. He’s passed out.”

Behind the dispatcher, the call center hummed, a swarm of ringing phones and harried voices.

“Is he breathing?”

“Barely.”

The eye of the storm was just off the coast of the Florida Panhandle.

“Okay,” the dispatcher said. Then she delivered the line that so many would hear that day.

“At this time, EMS, fire and law enforcement cannot roll. We are all bunkered down, same as you guys.”

The caller was adamant. “Okay, well he needs help. He’s turning purple right now.”

“Okay, so do you want me to tell you CPR and you do it as long as you can? Or do we want to...”

“Yes, yes. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.”

The man didn’t even know his neighbor’s name.

READ MORE:

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

NOAA’s 2019 hurricane season prediction

Complete reporting from Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael

Hurricane Michael: What if it had hit Tampa Bay?

• • •

When a major hurricane swirls near, the message is leave. Many stay. They have elderly relatives in hospice, five pets that don’t fit in a car, memories of a storm that didn’t do damage, too little money to get a hotel room.

Staying is logical, stubborn or easy. Right up until it twists into reckoning.

The worst-case-scenario, confronted by hundreds of people who called 911 in Bay County around the time of Hurricane Michael’s landfall, is learning that first responders cannot get to you. You’re on your own as everything collapses.

“Just because you’re not in a flood zone doesn’t mean you are not in trouble,” said Brian Hardin, communications supervisor for Bay County’s emergency services.

The chaos is preserved in recordings of emergency calls during the Oct. 10 storm, previously reviewed by the Panama City News Herald. Officials redacted names and addresses from the files.

The calls came nonstop for about nine hours, Hardin said, and 16 dispatchers prioritized problems, focusing on injuries and the most dire needs.

“There’s 10 of us in here, and the roof’s gone,” one woman said. The dispatcher directed her to move to an interior space near a load-bearing wall. “The eye of the storm is going to pass right over exactly where you are.”

A man stuck in a collapsing trailer begged for help. “Please come get me, ma’am.” The dispatcher broke down, sobbing. A colleague took over for her. “Sweetie, I would come and get you right now if I could, I swear. I need you to just stay with me.”

A woman reported a tree fell into her home and pinned an 81-year-old man. “His arm’s tore real bad.” The dispatcher walked her through emergency care. “If you have to, you need to put a tourniquet on his arm. Do whatever you can to stop the bleeding, okay?”

People were stuck in mobile homes rocking in the wind. They cowered under torn roofs and backed away from shattered windows. Dispatchers told them to lie in bathtubs and pull mattresses over their heads.

“A baby got hit by flying glass.”

“Our windows are blown out in our house. We’re really scared. My mom’s having blood pressure problems.”

“I have a newborn baby. I really need help.”

Everyone was told help would come as soon as the roads were clear.

Boats lay sunk and damaged at the Port St. Joe Marina in the Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

• • •

The man was standing in the driveway with his passed-out neighbor, unprotected, in the frenzy of the storm.

“I need you to kneel down next to him on the ground,” the dispatcher said.

“I am right now.”

“One hand over the other, center of the chest between the nipples. ... I need you to lock your elbows, and I need you to press down an inch to two inches as fast as you can, as hard as you can and let it recoil.”

“I am right now.”

“All I can tell you is ... if you can do that until you can’t anymore, and then if you want to leave him out there in the yard or put him back in the house, that will be your choice.”

More compressions. Over the phone, there was a sound like a cough, and a gasp.

“He’s coming to, he’s coming to,” the man said.

“He’s coming to?”

“Well no, he’s just gasping for air. Do I need to give him mouth-to-mouth?”

“Okay, is he breathing on his own or is it because of the CPR?”

“He’s not doing nothing.”

The man talked to someone beside him, instructing: “You may have to give him mouth-to-mouth.”

The dispatcher asked a different way. “But does he have a pulse?”

The man paused, checking.

“Not much of one, no.”

• • •

Lee Cathey, 37, finds bottled water in a displaced refrigerator in the middle of U.S. 98 in Mexico Beach on the morning after Hurricane Michael made landfall. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

Many residents emerged after the storm to find they were still on their own.

Stepping out from the steel-enforced safe room at her parents’ home in Lynn Haven, Stephanie Wood looked over the fallen trees blocking the roads in and out of the neighborhood.

Other residents walked through the wreckage in a daze.

That’s when the panic set in, said Wood, 33.

She heard Panama City Beach was gone. (It wasn’t.) She heard they would go weeks without water. (No one could know then.) Cell phone service was out.

Her husband, she said, walked three miles to check on their home, which had a tree through it.

Wood worried about food and water. With her parents and 8-year-old daughter, she learned to ration protein bars and crackers. They gathered buckets from a neighbor’s pool to flush their toilets without running water.

Residents all over took up chainsaws. If they wanted to clear the trees quickly, they would need to do it themselves.

Kathleen Graminski, 59, said Panama City after the storm reminded her of the scene in The Wizard of Oz when the munchkins emerge after the wicked witch dies.

“People were coming out at the same time all over the place,” she recalled. “Just checking with one another. Are you okay? Are you okay?”

Residents had to be careful working in the rubble, Graminski said, because there were no open emergency rooms nearby. Her brother drove in with generators. She had ice blocks that kept her food cold and offered her grill to neighbors who had spoiling meat.

With no power for weeks, Graminski grew familiar with pitch-black nights. “Like a void,” she said.

Graminski traded shifts staying awake with her sons. They worried about thieves. “I slept in the recliner in my living room with my blinds open,” she said, “with my gun next to me.”

• • •

The dispatcher had not made promises to the man trying to help his neighbor.

“I can tell you I do not know when EMS will be able to respond,” she said. “It may be hours from now. If you guys could put him on his porch or in his house, I will note it and, we will come take care of it when the storm passes.”

The man directed whomever he was with to start breathing into the neighbor’s mouth. “I’m trying, I’m trying. ... Close his nose, tilt his head back, pinch his nose and breathe into his mouth.”

The dispatcher returned to her CPR instructions. “Hard, fast, let it come all the way up, recoil.”

The man murmured something. “We’re trying, we’re trying.”

• • •

Hal Summers, 55, survived the landfall of Hurricane Michael by retreating into an outdoor bathroom with his cat, a neighbor and two dogs at his parent's home in Mexico Beach. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

Even after the floodwaters receded, Hal Summers was always wet.

He was initially soaked from the surge, which sent him climbing a deck railing at his parents’ house, clutching a gutter.

He dripped sweat the next day, walking through a broken Mexico Beach with his cat, Mr. Red, loose in a laundry basket.

“Every house alarm was going off,” recalled Summers, 55. He stepped on two nails that punctured his foot through flip-flops.

He washed the salt and muck from his body with bottled water and liquid hand soap. He grabbed tins of chewing tobacco from the blown-open grocery store.

Summers saw houses smoldering off U.S. 98, but there was nothing he could do.

His cell phone had been damaged, his radio and flashlights washed out. He had no way to let the rest of his family know he was alive, or to get reports of damage. He knew just what he saw and heard.

Summers wished he had thick gloves, a machete, better shoes, bug spray and a wrap to keep the sun off his neck.

He wished he had left.

He met up with other residents, and they agreed to gather in a parking lot each day to share information and tasks. One man with a working internet connection was able to get reports — and requests — from people who had evacuated. They carried around donated water, batteries, clothes and other supplies. They shared meals and misery.

Residents of the Panhandle hope their experience is evidence that others should evacuate when a hurricane is threatening.

READ MORE: Hurricane Michael retroactively upgraded to a Category 5 storm at landfall

"I don’t want people putting themselves through what our people had to go through," said Joby Smith, the Bay County emergency management division chief.

It's inevitable that more Floridians will. When the next storm strikes, a hurricane kit will only go so far. Knowing who in the neighborhood can cut wood, drive a tractor, or has medical training can mean the difference between overcoming and losing everything.

According to the National Hurricane Center, 50 people died in Florida, directly or indirectly because of Hurricane Michael.

In Mexico Beach, as out-of-town search crews scanned the rubble for bodies, Summers and the other residents focused on making days easier for people who were hurting, but still there.

“We (were) just trying to keep people alive,” he said.

It took more than a day for an emergency crew to reach Robert Baker Sr., 82, who is paralyzed below the waist, at his son's home in Mexico Beach after Hurricane Michael. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times]

• • •

The dispatcher made a note of the man who passed out in his driveway, a priority for emergency crews to follow up when they could.

“I have to catch these other calls, hon,” she said to the caller. “I’ve instructed you (on) the CPR the best you can. When you can’t do it anymore, will you guys please put him on his porch or in his house and we will come take care of him?"

The man shouted to the person he was with. “We’ve got to get him inside.”

“I’m going to be as non-callous as I can be,” the dispatcher continued, “but somewhere we can find his body for his family.”

More than seven months later, Hardin, the communications supervisor, remembered the call. When first responders finally arrived, he said, the man was dead.

Times staff writer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.


2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter


What Michael taught the Panhandle and Tampa Bay

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael.

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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