Sometimes Hurricanes Get Personal

Posted on October 13, 2020 by Chip Merlin

When Hurricane Michael roared ashore in 2018, it devastated a community I love

When a monster hurricane is about to hit your region, a sense of helplessness takes hold. You watch The Weather Channel with mounting dread, and when the inevitable occurs the entire situation still seems surreal. That’s what happened with Hurricane Michael as I followed the rapidly intensifying storm from my law offices in Tampa, Florida, knowing full well that a disaster was unfolding before my very eyes.

Hurricane Michael screamed ashore at 1:30 pm near Tyndall Air Force Base on October 10, 2018, as a Category 5 tropical cyclone with maximum sustained winds of 161 mph. The hardest-hit areas on the Florida Panhandle included Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach, Cape San Blas, and surrounding communities. Peak storm surge of 9 to 14 feet inundated Mexico Beach and other towns, washing away many buildings and badly damaging most others. 

Panama City, not to be confused with the nearby town of Panama City Beach, holds a special place in my memory. My dad served in the coast guard and was stationed in Panama City in the mid-1970s when I was a teenager. My dad was an avid sailor, and he joined yacht clubs at his duty stations whenever possible. I recall many happy times sailing on St. Andrews Bay in races between local yacht clubs. To see Hurricane Michael literally ripping Panama City apart made me feel sad. 

Shortly after the storm passed, the calls started coming in. Old friends lost their homes. Businesses were obliterated. I knew we’d have cases, and I went to inspect the damage. It’s important to get a firsthand look at storm damage. It puts claims in perspective if someone says their home is gone, and all you see is a concrete slab when you get to the site.

As we drove through debris-clogged streets, the level of damage impressed even me. I’ve seen a lot of bad damage after big storms, but this was unlike anything I’d seen except after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm reduced homes and businesses to rubble. Receded floodwaters left behind a patina of stinky brown gunk that covered just about everything in sight. The extreme winds stripped the leaves off most of the trees. Of course, there was no power, water, or cell service.

Our clients were emotionally and financially devastated. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to lose everything, but seeing the damage firsthand and talking with storm survivors provides a glimpse into the darkness. We did our best to console our clients, and we shepherded them through the claim settlement process.

A storm like Hurricane Michael changes the character of a town. Unlike the new construction in Panama City Beach, the city was comprised mostly of older structures that had plenty of historic charm. Most of those picturesque buildings are gone. The city continues to rebuild, but it will never be the same. Fortunately, communities that rebuild usually come back stronger than ever.


Justice For The Policyholder

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