Lazaro Aleman: Greene Publishing, Inc.
Once again, Big Bend and Madison County dodged the bullet. And what a bullet Hurricane Michael proved to be, packing winds of 155 mph when it slammed into the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday afternoon, Oct, 10.
Until it did, the storm's path remained uncertain, with expectations that it would take a northeast turn as it neared the coast, bringing it closer to Tallahassee and the Big Bend area.
The storm's devastation in Panama City and Mexico Beach was just becoming evident Thursday morning as the sun rose, with reports of downed trees and power lines, structures shorn of roofs, others “reduced to splinters” or turned into piles of rubble, and at least two deaths attributed to the storm.
Consider the words of veteran storm chaser Josh Morgerman, as quoted Thursday morning in the Washington Post, which described Morgerman as not prone to hyperbole. “It's hard to convey in words the scale of catastrophe in Panama City,” the Post quoted Morgerman. “The whole city looks like a nuke was dropped on it. I'm literally shocked at the scale of the destruction.”
The Post quoted another storm chaser, Mark Sudduth, as tweeting: “Drove from Panama City almost to Mexico Beach and I can tell you this is the worst damage from wind that I have ever seen! Absolutely catastrophic! You will not believe your eyes when you see it.”
“Truly devastated,” Sudduth added. “Some buildings completely swept clean – only slabs.”
Even before it struck, however, Michael was making history. Characterized as the most powerful storm on record to hit the continental United States since Andrew hit Miami in 1992 and ever to hit the Panhandle, Michael was near a Category 5 when it barreled into the region, its 155 mph winds just five mph shy of the higher category status, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
Landfall, according to reports, was just north of the small coastal town of Mexico Beach and east of Panama City. More than 280,000 customers were reported without power in the region on Thursday morning.
By 5 a.m. Thursday, the NHC reported Michael was about 30 miles west of Augusta, Ga., and heading northeast with sustained winds speeds of up to 50 mph.
Locally, the storm caused mostly power outages and scattered debris in roadways, according to Leigh Webb, deputy director of the Madison County Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
During the response to Hurricane Michael, Madison County EOC began monitoring and started preparation activities on Sunday, Oct. 7. The EOC pulled in public safety partners on Monday, Oct. 8, and began participating in National Weather Service Briefings and Florida Division of Emergency Management conference calls, preparing to make storm-related decisions regarding shelters, school, county and city department closures. Law enforcement, EMS and fire personnel began making preparations for staffing needs and the EOC went to a full activation Level 1 (24-hour staffing) on Tuesday, Oct. 9, at approximately 2 p.m., in conjunction with the opening of the risk and special needs shelter at Madison County Central School. Briefings continued throughout the duration of the storm with local and state partners, as well as the National Weather Service.
On Thursday morning, Webb reported that utility crews, as well as volunteer firefighters and Madison County Road Department employees, were out clearing debris and downed trees once winds subsided, which would have otherwise prevented traffic from passing through their normal route.
Webb continued to state the Madison County EOC received no damage, however, they had to run on generators until Duke Energy restored their initial power. Also, Webb reported there were no critical facilities in Madison County without power during the storm.
According to Webb, the highest wind speed experienced in Madison County was about 50 mph, compared with 70 mph in Tallahassee. She also said 272 people stayed in the risk shelter overnight.
Tri-County Electric Cooperative reported approximately 1,158 power outages in Madison County, with 1,295 outages in Jefferson County and 489 in Taylor County. According to Duke Energy, there were approximately 32,000 reported outages in the region with 1,690 outages reported throughout the duration of the storm. As of 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11, there were only five outages in Madison County reported by Duke Energy.
“Overall, Madison County faired very well during the storm,” said Webb. “It is always important that citizens prepare when storms of this magnitude threaten our area. This was a very powerful and dangerous Category 4 Hurricane and our thoughts and prayers go out to our neighbors to the west of us.”
On Wednesday evening, Alan Whigham, EOC director decided to officially close the Risk Shelter at Madison County Central School on Thursday, Oct. 11, at 7 a.m. All Madison County School District employees reported to their respective work sites on Friday morning, Oct. 12. All Madison County students will officially return to school for their normal schedule on Monday, Oct. 15.