In Panama City Beach, Fla., Communication Suffers In Hurricane Michael's Wake

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Officials in Florida and Georgia are surveying the damage caused by a historically powerful storm. Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle yesterday as a Category 4 storm, one of the strongest to hit the region since they started keeping records, back in the mid-19th century. It tore through the Panhandle into Georgia, ripping trees from the ground, roofs from homes. It has now been downgraded to a tropical storm, but that still means a lot of rain and wind as it moves north and east into the Carolinas. Mario Gisbert is the city manager of Panama City Beach, and I reached him earlier as he was surveying the damage.

MARIO GISBERT: Rachel, one of the biggest problems we have right now is one of the issues that you and your station and I have been dealing with all morning, and that’s communication. We have almost no lines of communication. And when I say almost no, I mean my police chief cannot communicate with my sheriff right now. Cell lines are down. Radio towers are down. And we have things that we can offer here on the Beach because we did not get the damage that was done over into Panama City.

So what we are trying to do right now is create an inventory of places where people can come stay. We’re looking for hotels that have generators, for hotels that look like they have the possibility of getting power back up. I’m trying to get ahold of our power company so that they can locate the places that are least devastated and get those back up and running so we can create a place for people to eat and sleep.

MARTIN: But as you note, it’s hard to coordinate any of that if you can’t even talk to first responders and the other people who can help you.

GISBERT: I wholeheartedly agree. That’s why I’m communicating with you because radio waves have not been stopped. I can listen to you on the radio and if my contact with Gulf Power, Sandy Sims, happens to hear it, somebody like them happens to hear it, maybe they can find a way of communicating with me.

MARTIN: Wow. So it’s my understanding you have been driving around this morning. Can you just give us a sense of what you have seen?

GISBERT: Again, I’m isolated to my jurisdiction, which is Panama City Beach. Panama City Beach actually fared very, very well, you know, in light of what hit us. I will tell you that almost every condo and every hotel is fine. We lost signage. We lost power lines. We lost some shingles in houses. I drove by my house – it’s on the – close to the bay – earlier, late yesterday, and I lost all the trees and all the fencing, but the house is fine. There’s just no power.

But as soon as you cross another half-mile to the east, you can see where all the tornado paths were. And it’s devastating. I spoke to my police chief just seven minutes ago, and he said that on 23rd Street, which is the main commercial drive through Panama City, that they literally ran a bulldozer down the road to clear the debris.

MARTIN: Well, we hope your message gets out there. We hope people are listening now. Mario Gisbert is the city manager of Panama City Beach. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

GISBERT: Thank you.

MARTIN: With us now, Ken Graham. He’s the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center. He joins me from Miami, Fla., where he’s been tracking all this. Ken, good morning.

KEN GRAHAM: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What can you tell us about the conditions on Florida’s Gulf Coast right now?

GRAHAM: You know, just a devastating hurricane. You know, real historic. I mean, since 1851, our records don’t show a Category 4 making landfall in the Florida Panhandle. So an historic storm, catastrophic damage. You know, you just have the winds associated with such a strong storm, but not only that. You have a storm surge. I mean, we’re, you know, predicting the potential to 9 feet to 14 feet of inundation in some areas. And that’s destructive, too, and the waves are even on top of that. So the combination of the rain, the winds and the storm surge has had every aspect of all the impacts we expect from a strong hurricane.

MARTIN: Right. So you mentioned the storm surge. I mean, are there active threats right now to the people who didn’t evacuate who are still in the areas that were hardest hit?

GRAHAM: Rachel, what happens is all that water is forced in because the winds are so strong with the hurricane. And, you know, we were talking about this the last three days and how far inland some of that storm surge goes. It finds every low spot. So rivers that normally flow out to the Gulf, like the Apalachicola River, they’ve actually reversed. That water goes backward. It can go 10 miles, 15 miles inland. So once it’s forced in with the wind, now it has to flow out, and that takes time. So those water levels are going to stay high for a little while.

MARTIN: This storm moved quicker than Hurricane Florence. I mean, part of the devastation of that storm is that it was so slow-moving. But this one, it seemed to come on so fast. Why was that?

GRAHAM: It’s interesting to look at these hurricanes because they’re all so different. And that’s why we try to – we spend so much time here at the Hurricane Center and talking about those impacts because they’re all completely different. So Florence stalls, and – like a Harvey, right, in Texas? And you get a Florence that, when they stall, they could bring an amazing amount of rain, flooding, dangerous, life-threatening rains.

This one’s fast. So a different impact with a fast storm is, you know, you start getting some of those hurricane force inland. We had a hurricane in southwest Georgia last night, which is staggering, and that causes a lot of damage, as well. The other part of this equation is interesting, too. When you have a Florence and you have storms that come across the Atlantic, you can see them for five, six, seven days.

MARTIN: Right.

GRAHAM: This time of year, typical for October, when they form in the Caribbean, there’s just not a lot of real estate. So once they form and they start moving, especially with Michael moving, you know, during the lifecycle anywhere from 12 miles to 15 miles an hour, they get here quick. So those timelines change based on where they form.

MARTIN: You don’t have a lot of time to prepare. Not as much. As we mentioned, this thing is not over. It’s been downgraded to a tropical storm, but it’s headed toward the Carolinas. How much of a threat does it pose to cities still in its path?

GRAHAM: You know, looking at the radar here, you know, we still have a strong circulation around it. We’re still – think of this – we’re still a tropical storm, even after all this time. Fifty-mile-an-hour winds around the core. So around those rain bands, you can definitely still get heavy rain, flooding rain. You can get tornadoes in those rain bands. And the other part that always worries me is, you know, the falling trees, as well, because once you saturate that soil – and we’re still talking 50-mile-an-hour winds. That’ll knock down trees and power lines. So yeah. The danger is still not over. People still have to really watch Michael as we move across the Carolinas.

MARTIN: All right. Ken Graham. He is the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center. We reached him from Miami, Fla. Ken, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

GRAHAM: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.