A hurricane's aftershock: 'There are no words. Panama City is devastated'

Debris outside a hospital in Panama City on Thursday morning. As Hurricane Michael bore down, some hospitals in the region closed entirely, and others evacuated their patients, but kept staff in place to run an emergency room and serve their affected communities.  (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)
Debris outside a hospital in Panama City on Thursday morning. As Hurricane Michael bore down, some hospitals in the region closed entirely, and others evacuated their patients, but kept staff in place to run an emergency room and serve their affected communities. (Eric Thayer/The New York Times)
Published Oct. 11, 2018

PANAMA CITY — The marina once hosted a morning coffee club, rented fishing rods to families and was home to a tight-knit community of sailors and boaters.

Nothing remained standing, or floating upright, in the destructive wake of Hurricane Michael. Boat owners, workers and residents who came to salvage what they could on Thursday found dirty water swirled with cracked wood planks, snapped masts and scattered, shredded life jackets. There was a strong smell of marine fuel in the air.

"There are no words," said marina employee Sandra Groom, 56, breaking down in tears while taking photos. "I'm devastated. Panama City is devastated."

One day after Michael buzz-sawed through the Florida Panhandle with winds speeds just short of Category 5 and storm surge that reached roof eaves, the biggest city between Pensacola and Tallahassee was in ruins and without power. Many stunned residents seemed almost in mourning, not just for the buildings and stuff destroyed but for the feeling that a small-town culture may have been wiped out with the storm.

Along Harrison Avenue, in the main historic district, many of the business owners are older and may never return to open their shops, said Brian Humboldt, who lives on the strip and runs a sanitation removal company.

"The landscape of the community has changed forever," he said.

Panama City is a waterfront town, but inland along normally tranquil St. Andrews Bay and Grand Lagoon. It's distinctly different from its rowdier "Redneck Riviera" neighbor, Panama City Beach, which draws the Spring Break crowd and Georgia tourists to sugary beaches, oyster bars, miniature golf courses and a Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Across the Hathaway Bridge in Panama City, the vibe is far different, more laid-back and blue-collar in a place that is home to about 26,500 people. The city is renowned for its scuba diving tours, sport fishing and growing arts scene. "It's an old town, a working town," said John Littleton, 71, a semi-retired contractor who grew up in Panama City and walked through the downtown on Thursday. "There a lot of old-timers like us."

The crushed and sunken remains of boats at the Panama City marina on Thursday, the day after Hurricane Michael landed.

But others have been drawn more recently to its charms. Deborah Adams, 28, moved here with her two children from a small town in Mississippi. The wages were low back home, and in Panama City, she found work cleaning condos on the beach, and serving customers at the fast-food chicken chain Zaxby's. She moved into city-run low-income housing at the Massalina Memorial Homes, where her kids bicycled in the streets and frolicked in the waters of a nearby water park.

But Hurricane Michael blew off part of her ceiling and flooded part of her upstairs rooms. Like nearly everyone in Panama City, she has no electricity. Adams opened the freezer stuffed with meats.

"Chicken. Ribs. Hamburger meat. Neck bones," she said. "It's all spoiled. No way to cool it."

Adams walked onto the sidewalk. Her old SUV had a punctured tire and a broken rear passenger's side window.

The whole housing project was badly damaged. Winds blew out the building for the Head Start education program located in the center of the community. Trees and limbs choked the small roads. Some neighbors milled outside, grousing about the lack of water. Neighbors began clearing storm drains. Down the block, a woman was telling everyone that her daughter left to get supplies after the storm and has gone missing.

"It's like a bad dream," said Adams, who said she may return to Mississippi. "Like the whole city is gone."

Officials assessed the damage in Panama City and Bay County as "catastrophic."

Michael's winds were powerful enough to knock part of a train off the track near Panama City.

The Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center reported Thursday morning that it was suspending operations and evacuating patients. People were still staying in shelters and recovery workers began to stream into Bay County. Cell service remained limited.

"You don't see any heavy equipment at all down here. No debris trucks. It's worse than anyone could have imagined," said Panama City resident and contractor Josh Carroll, who began clearing shards of metal and branches from the road on his own accord. Thursday's daylight also revealed that a train along U.S. Route 231 derailed as if it were a toy tipped over by a giant child.

"It must have been really bad to push over an entire train," said Stacy Oxemham, 28, who sat on a curb puffing a cigarette and watching cars stream past the overturned train.

By late Thursday, columns of power trucks with police escorts were streaming toward the city and the rest of the coast.

Teresa and Randall Jones look over shattered boats. including their own named Fear Knot, early Thursday morning at the City Marina, the day after Hurricane Michael landed in Panama City as a Category 4 hurricane in the Florida's Panhandle.

Back at the marina, Randall Jones scoured through debris, looking for his boat, the Fear Knot, which vanished completely. Suddenly, he spotted portions of the boat, submerged and twisted up with other vessels.

"There she is. I can tell by the woods and railings. Sh--," said Jones, a retired U.S. Army veteran.

Jones wasn't too worried about the boat. He'd get another one. He was more worried that the marina's destruction will make it easier for the city to build a controversial project that will include restaurants and a hotel.

The project has met with some resistance from boaters like Jones, who believe the development and talk of cruise ships will ruin the charming character of the town.

"This is our marina," he said as he looked at the damage. "It's just heartbreaking. How much joy we had down here with friends, getting together, going out to the islands. It's going to be a while before we do that again."

Miami Herald staff writer Martin Vassolo contributed to this story.