By Courtney (Wellings) Kelly
On Oct. 7, news reports began circulating about a disturbance in the Caribbean Sea forecasted to strengthen into a hurricane. Like many Bay County residents, we took this information with a grain of salt. My husband, who lived in Florida his whole life before joining the military, told me not to worry. “There will just be a lot of wind and rain ... it’ll be OK.”
As the days went on, the hurricane strengthened and a state of emergency was issued for the state of Florida. We were still optimistic. We naively thought news reports were wrong, and we were going to be fine.
On Oct. 9, however, evacuations began for zones including Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach and all areas located on or near water where the threat of storm surge was apparent. My family and I were not in an official evacuation zone, which helped provide some comfort. However, that night my brother-in-law John texted me that we needed to come to his house. He wanted us all under one roof. We declined, telling him we would be fine.
Throughout the night, the hurricane strengthened to a Category 4, and was set to come straight for Bay County Florida. I woke up the next morning to several more texts begging me to go to my mother-in-law’s home. I was terrified. Growing up in small-town Ohio, I have never gone through something like this. I was crying, and told my husband, “Please, please let’s go. I will never question you again about a hurricane if this all turns out to be nothing, but I’m scared.” He looked at me as if I were crazy as he tried to console me, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be with family. He relented and told me if it would make me feel better, he would start packing up the cars.
It was a scramble to get clothing, pets and whatever food and bottled water we could pack. But within 30 minutes, we had all our children, pets and a family friend packed up and we were on our way. We had just made it over the Bailey Bridge before they began preparations to close the bridges in Bay County. The winds were picking up in strength, and they couldn’t run the risk of anyone being on any of the bridges when the hurricane force winds hit.
We pulled up to my mother-in-law’s house sometime before 8 a.m.
“Hey! Hurricane party is about to start!” yelled my brother-in-law Craig from the kitchen of my mother-in-law’s house, as he prepared breakfast for all of us. For several hours, we waited. Several times my mother-in-law and I stood on the back porch and watched the winds move the tall pine trees in her back yard. I was beginning to think I was silly for being so scared.
Sometimes, when people say, “It happened within five minutes,” they might be exaggerating. In this case, it was literally five minutes from being relatively calm outside to becoming the scariest experience of my life. The winds had picked up tremendously. The rain came down incredibly hard and blew sideways. My husband and his two brothers ran across the street to check on their grandparents and bring them to the house. The three of them had to hold each grandparent just for a simple three-minute walk across the street, fearing the wind would topple them over.
We heard the deafening cracking and snapping as these tall pine trees bent and broke from their losing battle with the winds, and came down one by one. A tree came crashing down on a house across the street and caused the front bedroom to cave in. Another came down on my mother-in-law’s van. Standing in the living room and looking out the glass French doors, we watched the wind rip off and lift the roofing that covered their back porch. We heard it crash along the roof of the house, right over our heads, and fall in the front yard. The winds grabbed it once more, and it flew somewhere down the road.
The power went out, but my father-in-law had a full home generator that fired up within a few seconds. Unfortunately, cell service went out and the storm drains had become clogged with debris and were no longer capable of draining the water and the roads flooded.
When the hurricane finally passed, everything went silent. Slowly, we all came out. Trees blocked the roads and glass was everywhere. Walking down the road, we came across the roof of an entire second story house. Neighbors who had never met began to check on one another. Then came the sounds of chainsaws. We all needed to clear the roads. What if someone was hurt? What if they were trapped? We all began working on recovery and assistance. During this time of terror, strangers very quickly became friends.
The night of the storm there was no power, and there wouldn’t be for at least three weeks. Cell service wouldn’t come back for more than four weeks. The nights were filled with the sounds of helicopters, police sirens and generators. Looting became an issue. Everywhere there was a fence still standing, the words “You loot, we shoot” was spray painted as a warning.
Our home was deemed “unlivable” by the insurance company adjuster, and we continued to live with my mother-in-law, and are still living with her. In December, looters broke into our home. They had no regard of our hardship or what the hurricane had already stolen. Our insurance company refused our claim for theft, citing the fine print that we had to be living in the home a full 30 days. Despite showing them the hurricane claim that indicated we couldn’t live there, they still wouldn’t process the claim for theft.
The children didn’t go back to school until November. Enrollment for Bay County Schools dropped by 2,620 students between Oct. 5 and Nov. 15. Many children suffered immensely; my children included. The mental health of a lot of people is a serious concern. Many children are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, anxiety and depression, as are adults.
June 10 was the eight months since the hurricane. Many of us, my family included, are still not in our homes. We are being held hostage by insurance companies and public adjusters as we try to get the funds we need to complete repairs. My family is still crammed in a small bedroom with two of our three children, and our two dogs. Six heartbeats in a small room.
But there are others who have it far worse. Many people are still homeless. There are people living in tents, living out of their cars and living in the streets. With all the residential damages came the high demand for replacement living arrangements. Apartments and condos have inflated the cost of the rent to the point it’s near impossible for all but the very well off to live there.
During Hurricane Katrina, it took 12 days to receive the government disaster fund. In the case of Hurricane Michael, which had been categorized as a Category 5 hurricane in March, the disaster relief fund passed in June, more than seven months after the third worst hurricane to ever hit the Gulf of Mexico ravaged Bay County Florida. That delay added to the emotional devastation felt by everyone in this area.
We, the residents of Bay County, feel forgotten. We’re still struggling every day. We try to keep our optimism high and get through day-to-day. Many families still go without a roof over their head. They’re still dealing with the insurance companies and claims, myself included. Work on our home has stopped because we have run out of money to pay our contractor. We have exhausted all options and are praying the insurance company accepts our public adjustor’s proof of loss so that we can continue the repair work.
My mother-in-law’s family business, which has been open for more than 40 years, was devastated. She, like other businesses, have fought with their insurance companies, and many of them had to get Small Business Administration loans just so they could start the repair work. So many others don’t have that opportunity.
Now that Congress has passed the disaster relief bill, we need to start rebuilding our towns. Our schools will need additional help, however. My oldest son plays the tenor saxophone with Bay High’s Million Dollar band, which lost over $1 million in instruments when their band room was destroyed in the hurricane, and that’s just a small set back. Bay County has a total of 42 area schools, and almost all of them have been impacted by this hurricane. An estimated $350 million worth of damage is threatening the closure of several schools.
My family will eventually get back home. Eventually, it’s my hope that everyone else will get back into their homes too. The businesses will get back up and running again. But my fear is that our educational system will be the last to recover and will be the last to receive additional and much needed funds to operate at the capacity they were pre-Hurricane Michael. My children, and thousands of other children’s education, is jeopardized because of this storm and this is frightening and heartbreaking. Any contributions to this worthy cause would be greatly appreciated and can be sent to Bay District Schools at 1311 Balboa Ave., Panama City FL 32401.
Courtney (Wellings) Kelly: was born and raised in Geneva and graduated from Geneva High School in 2003.