The week leading up to Hurricane Michael was typical for Panama City, warm weather along with crowds of tourists on the beaches and in the bars. No one suspected one of the most powerful hurricanes in history would soon change the community forever.
Since tropical storms/hurricanes are frequently being reported in Panama City, most locals ignored the report of a low-pressure system. The system soon became a hurricane. As the hurricane became defined and the predicted track formulated, it was clear Hurricane Michael was headed straight for Panama City. With each passing day, the storm track did not move off target as it had in years past.
Evacuation orders were issued for Panama City Beach. Some began to pack up and leave, but many locals prepared to stay. THOR employee Randall Hairston explained it best when he said he was torn between the decision “to stay and hunker down or to leave town with the uncertainty of when you would be able to return if Bay County took a direct hit.”
THOR employee Greg Stewart described the evening before the storm as restless. “We barely slept at all that night before the storm. We had finally fallen asleep when the 4am National Weather Service update was issued. Michael had become a Category 4 and was close to a Category 5. The storm was barreling down right for us.” The eye of the storm passed over Mexico Beach in the area of Tyndall Air Force base in eastern Panama City and the winds of Hurricane Michael had reached Category 5 speeds of 160 mph.
This was the first Hurricane since 1992’s Andrew to hit the United States as a Category 5 and the third most powerful storm to ever hit the United States. Verizon Wireless lost their main cell phone towers, and nearly all local radio and TV stations sustained catastrophic damage to their antennas. Contact with the outside world was almost completely cut off, making it difficult to communicate both inside and outside the local area.
It took emergency crews several days to clear the main roadways down from I-10 to allow power companies, relief workers, the national guard, and the returning residents. THOR employee Marcia Gulledge described her return from Alabama, where she had evacuated before the storm. “We traveled back home on the 12th. Driving down 231 was a mess as we got closer to Panama City. We went down highway 20 and saw the military with chain saws and tractors clearing the lanes. The police were on highway 79 checking ID’s to only let people in that lived on the beach.”
Marcia Gulledge returned home to find many trees downed, but only minor damage to her house. Others weren’t so lucky. Residents went without electricity or water as they started to clean up their yards, patch up their homes, and help their neighbors. THOR employee Randall Hairston had substantial damage to his home, including needing a new roof, windows, garage door, outside AC unit, fence, gutters, and automobile. In some parts of Panama City Beach, power and water were out for 3 to 4 days, while in Panama City it was out for 2 to 3 weeks. Cell phone service for most citizens remained out for 2 weeks after the storm. Internet service was down for 4 or more weeks.
Greg Stewart was in continuous contact with the Panama City team during and after the hurricane and provided THOR leadership updates. Due to the phone outage Greg Stewart was unable to reach one of his team members, so Kevin Nelson and Greg Stewart went to the employee’s house to make sure they were safe. THOR HQ delivered Wi-Fi hotspots to the Panama City team to help ease some of the hardships caused by the hurricane. THOR leadership researched ways THOR could help their employees with storm damage to their property. THOR provided Qualified Disaster Relief Payments (QDRPs) to help personnel offset the cost of the damage.
The Panama City THOR Office sustained substantial roof damage that impacted the landlord’s offices on the second floor, but luckily had minimal effect on THOR’s spaces on the first floor. Personnel were able to return to the office in about 1-1/2 weeks, which aligned with the reopening of Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD). THOR’s customers on the Naval installation had also been shut down due to repair and recovery efforts. The LCAC Engineering Building was so severely damaged in the storm, the building was condemned and all personnel had to be relocated to other buildings. The LCAC Hanger (Building 319) at NSWC PCD is still undergoing “hurricane remediation” more than 6 months after the storm as drywall and ceilings are replaced.
The THOR Panama City Team pulled together to help their community by volunteering time engaging in cleanup/restoration efforts and donating money and goods to relief organizations.
Several THOR employees have volunteered as well as donated at local churches, assisting hard hit families in need to make sure they were able to get all the necessary supplies. THOR personnel helped by sorting, organizing, and then aiding the people who came in. They personally donated things like blankets, clothes, shoes, water, and animal supplies.
In addition, THOR employees opened their homes to friends, family, and neighbors, offering hot showers, washers/driers, and air conditioning to those who still had not had services restored. THOR personnel also opened their wallets and donated to organizations as well as “GoFundMe” pages in response to the hurricane. THOR employee Marcia Gulledge and her husband helped build a house boat for a homeless man who was displaced due to the storm. In these tough times the generosity and goodness of others has truly made a difference in rebuilding not only the physical structure of the community, but also its spirit.