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'Panama City is devastated': A hurricane's aftershock

David Ovalle, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- The marina once hosted a morning coffee club, rented fishing rods to families and was home to a tight-knit community of sailors and boaters.

Nothing remained standing, or floating upright, in the destructive wake of Hurricane Michael. Boat owners, workers and residents who came to salvage what they could on Thursday found dirty water swirled with cracked wood planks, snapped masts and scattered, shredded life jackets. There was a strong smell of marine fuel in the air.

"There are no words," said marina employee Sandra Groom, 56, breaking down in tears while taking photos. "I'm devastated. Panama City is devastated."

One day after Michael buzz-sawed through the Florida Panhandle with winds speeds just short of Category 5 and storm surge that reached roof eaves, the biggest city between Pensacola and Tallahassee was in ruins and without power. Many stunned residents seemed almost in mourning, not just for the buildings and stuff destroyed but for the feeling that a small-town culture may have been wiped out with the storm.

Along Harrison Avenue, in the main historic district, many of the business owners are older and may never return to open their shops, said Brian Humboldt, who lives on the strip and runs a sanitation removal company.

"The landscape of the community has changed forever," he said.

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Panama City is a waterfront town, but inland along normally tranquil St. Andrews Bay and Grand Lagoon. It's distinctly different from its rowdier "Redneck Riviera" neighbor, Panama City Beach, which draws the spring break crowd and Georgia tourists to sugary beaches, oyster bars, miniature golf courses and a Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Across the Hathaway Bridge in Panama City, the vibe is far different, more laid back and blue-collar in a place that is home to about 26,500 people. The city is renowned for its scuba diving tours, sportfishing and growing arts scene. "It's an old town, a working town," said John Littleon, 71, a semi-retired contractor who grew up in Panama City and walked through the downtown on Thursday. "There a lot of old-timers like us."

But others have been drawn more recently to its charms. Deborah Adams, 28, moved here with her two children from a small town in Mississippi. The wages were low back home, and in Panama City, she found work cleaning condos on the beach, and serving customers at the fast-food chicken chain Zaxby's. She moved into city-run low-income housing at the Massalina Memorial Homes, where her kids bicycled in the streets and frolicked in the waters of a nearby water park.

But Hurricane Michael blew off part of her ceiling and flooded part of her upstairs rooms. Like for nearly everyone in Panama City, she has no electricity. Adams opened the freezer stuffed with meats.


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