One week ago today, Floridians woke up and saw that the savageness of Hurricane Michael's unparalleled assault upon Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties was not imagined. It was not a bad dream. It was a nightmare, and it was real.
Our worlds changed forever.
Those who have seen the devastation don't need to read another description of it here. For those who haven't seen it, go to The Panama City News Herald's website — newsherald.com — and look at the pictures and videos and understand that even after doing that, you have no idea how bad it really is. It's the difference between seeing a picture of someone being beaten and actually being beaten.
There is no way to know that unless you are here. Not until you've eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for seven days in a row and discovered just how rank a human being — yourself — can become after seven days without power and showers. And then been grateful for the sandwiches and the little bit of water you could spare to try to clean yourself with because you realize you're better off than many who lost loved ones, pets, homes. Property can be replaced. Stink can be cleansed.
You can't understand the fear and lawlessness of the dark of the night until you are in the dark of the night, in your home or what's left of it, prepared to ward off looters during a time when the dark is so absolute that in Panama City you can look up in the sky and see as many stars as you might normally see from an isolated mountaintop. There are no city lights to hide them.
We can hide under a rock, retreat, isolate, move or otherwise pretend that it hasn't happened, that it will go away, that it will fix itself, that some government agency will fix it for us.
Or we can do what we are already seeing people doing: galvanize, help each other, get the basics restored, the wounded healed and the homeless housed and start thinking about tomorrow. And next week. And next month. And next year. And the next five years. And the future.
Panama City will become what we make of it, and this is not lost upon the many people whose roots there run deep. It is not lost upon Panama City's city manager, Mark McQueen. He and the people around, people whose last names are synonymous — literally — with Panama City, people with flower shops and nursing homes, people with asphalt plants. Or the people who run the newspaper.
Seven of us rode out Hurricane Michael at The News Herald. There was a period we didn't think we were going to make it, and the building almost gave up. Almost. It didn't and we haven't.
We didn't leave then and we aren't leaving now. We've printed a paper every day since the storm hit. We have crews working around the clock to move printing back here from Montgomery like we have had to do the past week. We are rebuilding The News Herald.
But it was hurt badly, and it will take time. So we are renting space in Panama City for The News Herald's staff for the next year, because we aren't leaving.
Panama City was hit badly, and it will take time. But already, water and power are returning. Verizon, which is about as popular here right now as a swarm of yellow flies, seems to have restored service in areas Wednesday.
We see thousands and thousands of volunteers here to help us help ourselves. They are good people. They are saving us. FEMA might arrive one day and make an impact, we shall see.
But these people, these givers and volunteers, they will leave. We will not.
We are here to help shape this community's future, and we can choose to see this time of horror as a gateway to better things, a better Panama City, the kind of city we all want for our children and their children.
McQueen and the other aforementioned types of people have visions beyond rebuilding what was here. There's a movement to turn, as McQueen says, the "Great Place" into THE "Great Place."
We all have to pitch in. Some might not like the direction, but all will have a voice. There will be progress, and we all will grow stronger. It's what we do in Bay County.
Get to the shoreline of a bayou, bay or beach sometime soon and look at the setting sun. It is as incredibly breathtaking as ever.
Yes, our world changed overnight, but God's world hasn't changed a bit, and we will make the most of this.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS-HERALD