I’d like you to know what it is like here.
We have experienced many hurricanes. It’s what we do here, part of our waterfront rhythm. It sounds strange to my friends elsewhere, but we are intimate with our storms.
“Remember Ivan? That was bad in Pensacola.”
“I was in college when Opal hit Panama City Beach.”
“My dad was there for Eloise.”
We take pride in our ability to withstand tropical cyclones, to “ride them out.”
Took pride. No one is proud of what happened here last month. This was different.
The storm did not just damage our city. We were strafed. There’s not a single unaffected structure or person. Friends of mine have spoken with veterans who told them the aftermath looks like the result of a bombing run, minus the craters.
We are homesick on our own streets.
I have heard people raised in other tourist destinations say they don’t appreciate their communities enough. They don’t take advantage of what visitors pay to enjoy.
Panama City isn’t like that. We truly dig our home and its surroundings. Our social media feeds are — were — full of weekend pontoon rides to Shell Island. Canoeing on Econfina Creek. If there was a pretty sunset on a random Tuesday, you could scroll Facebook and see shots of it from a hundred different angles, captioned #LoveWhereYouLive.
Our town is a lovely mix of old Florida Gulf-side hamlet and Deep South gentility, blue-collar redneck ethos, military town and artist colony. There are NRA conservatives and fire-breathing liberals and people who don’t give a rip. But we all like the fish tacos at Finn’s.
And the trees. Our historic neighborhoods are known by the shade of timeless live oaks under which those communities sprouted a century ago.
Were known. By some estimates, Panama City has lost more than 90 percent of its mature trees. As I watch the California wildfires, I hurt for those people who will return, as we did, to a landscape they no longer recognize.
Right after the hurricane, it didn’t sink in that the foundation of our community could be cracked to the bedrock: Both hospitals were closed. There was not a single gas station or grocery store in operation. No traffic lights. No cell service. No schools. No municipal water or flushing toilets. There was looting in a city that has never, ever had looting.
That was only phase one. We are in phase two now. The visceral needs are met, most roofs are tarped, we hear fewer sirens. The astonishing army of out-of-town linemen that rewired our infrastructure has almost finished.
The initial panic is over but has been replaced with a dreadful clarity about what we are really up against, and for how long.
The layoffs have started.
A friend of mine, a successful medical marketer, texted me the other day: “Know of anyone hiring? The medical system is suffering and I am more than likely going to be laid off in two weeks.” Update: She was. She lost her home to the storm as well.
Phase two has brought a housing crisis. Every neighborhood in Panama City contains unlivable structures. Many people lucky enough to still have jobs — teachers, police officers and firefighters, paper mill workers — are homeless. Entire apartment-building and condominium populations have been evicted for repairs and mold remediation. A co-worker bought a camper and parked it behind the remains of her home while they rebuild. As of last week, she was still trying to get running water.
At the same time, many places are hiring. Home Depot, Walmart, AutoZone and certainly the building trades are open and begging for applicants. But many people had to leave almost immediately — and if there are no homes, then coming back, even for a job, is futile.
Yards are reappearing. Stacks of debris are more organized and taller, much taller. People have been doing what they can, but now we’re on to the stuff that average citizens can’t do. Heavy demolition, rebuilding subdivisions and shopping centers, and disposing of the interminable berms of shattered trees and household belongings at every curb.
As in all catastrophes, there are some smiles and optimism. Stories of communal effort. #850Strong is a popular hashtag. (850 is the Florida Panhandle’s area code.)
For Halloween, a group of locals decided to hold a trick-or-treat event in our working-waterfront downtown area. They held a used-costume giveaway for kids who’d lost their clothes. People donated candy.
It was slammed. Costumed families choked the street. There were craft tables and blow-up ghosts and a person walking on stilts. The Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews played.
I chatted with a couple while we waited in line at Tom’s Hot Dogs. They’d lost everything. They and their two little ones were dressed as the Incredibles.
What does it take to dress up as a family and go for hot dogs after the last month in Panama City?
We will rebuild. I’m sure of that, but it hurts right now.