It has been six months since Hurricane Michael ravaged the Florida’s Big Bend and Panhandle. It wiped out the community of Mexico Beach, razed pine forests and laid siege to Georgia’s cotton crop while claiming 57 lives in the process.
Now — half a year into the lengthy recovery process — we are getting our first glimpses of Panama City television coverage from a station that at the time was getting knocked off the air by the storm thrashing their city. And it is jarring.
“We’re in that core,” the chilling video begins.
WMBB Chief Meteorologist Justin Kiefer gestures toward a radar display showing an amalgamation of deep yellows, oranges and most fearsome — reds — battering Panama City. That is the eyewall — the most vicious part of the storm. It is shortly after 11 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2018.
A voice calls out from off-camera, “We’re at twenty-seven nine nine for the pressure.” Kiefer looks stunned. That is a barometer reading of 27.99 inches. Typical surface air pressure at sea level is around 30.00 inches. All that “missing” air has been vacuumed out the storm’s top, fueling its ferocious 130-plus mph wind gusts.
The wind can be heard roaring outside. Kiefer appears actively nervous, but keeps his composure. From time to time his voice wavers.
“Take towercam,” he tells the folks in the control room. The view mimics what one would see from inside a washing machine, the camera helplessly flailing in the extreme wind. “Water is coming through our roof.”
Tension continues to rise as news director Tom Lewis walks onto the set, offering a sobering report: “We have lost our Internet. We’ve lost Verizon phones. We believe we’re broadcasting.”
“Our colleagues at NBC Channel 7 … their roof is gone,” announces an off-camera voice (the station later learned that the NBC affiliate’s roof was actually intact).
Anchor Amy Hoyt calls a friend at the competing station on her cellphone, who confirms the roof is still in place. Moments later, Hoyt interjects, “Uh oh. Is that the roof?” watching a live shot of debris and shrapnel peel away from their own roof. “We may have to run out of here if this gets any worse.”
Kiefer pops up a velocity on plot on radar, peppered with 130-to-140-mph wind estimates. A series of loud clangs can be heard, the sound of the wind ominously growing in volume. Kiefer pauses for a second, looking startled. “What do you think fellas?” he asks his crew in a moment of levity amid fear and raw emotion.
“We’ve got the roof leaking, debris falling from the ceiling, the lights shaking,” says anchor Jerry Brown. Hoyt agrees: “It’s everything we’ve seen on television in other places, and now it’s happening here.”
“My ears just popped,” reports Kiefer, a product of the wild air pressure fluctuations in the inner eyewall.
“You can see our roof is falling apart,” says Hoyt.
Seconds later, Brown jumps in. “It’s a history-making storm.” As if by cue, a shrill, piercing beep hisses eerily in the background. The screen goes blue as the station loses power — the anchors continuing to deliver their broadcast, unaware it was not being disseminated.
“Out of the studio!” a voice shouts. “Go go go,” urges Hoyt.
“I want a list of everybody’s names so we can account for everybody,” orders a voice — presumably belonging to Lewis.
The screen goes black.
Six months later, and with hurricane season only seven weeks away, thousands of Florida Panhandle residents continue to struggle. Alleged lackluster state and federal responses have come under fire in recent weeks. Sand dunes have been replaced with mounds of debris, entire neighborhoods abandoned since the storm.
January’s government shutdown and terse relations in Congress mean a disaster-relief supplemental federal funding bill never materialized, leaving many Florida residents to fend for themselves.
As Michael’s victims continue the slow and painstaking process of recovery, one question echoes in the vastness of the disaster: Have Florida residents been forgotten?