Before Hurricane Michael made landfall, Capt. Ryan Kelley, owner of Southbound Charters in Mexico Beach, Fla., hauled his 36-foot Contender. He trailered the center console to a spot about 15 feet above sea level because the forecast called for a 9- to 10-foot storm surge. Kelley evacuated about 60 miles north of Mexico Beach, where Michael struck with 155-mph winds and a 9-foot surge.
“My house is the first one on the canal, and it’s fine, but my neighbor’s house is leaning on it,” Kelley says. “My boat is 100 yards into the woods; it floated in on the trailer.”
Capt. Chip Blackburn owns the charter boat Miss Mary, also based in Mexico Beach. He evacuated to Tallahassee, Fla., after he and other captains in the charter fleet took their boats up the Intracoastal Waterway and secured them with storm anchors. When the forecast predicted winds of 130 mph, Blackburn decided to get out of town. “We don’t know if we’re in business or not,” he said in a phone interview Oct. 11, a day after the storm made landfall. “It’s really, really bad.”
Blackburn couldn’t get back to his boat because most of the roads around Mexico Beach were impassable. Sections of Highway 98, the primary coastal road that runs east and west on the Florida Panhandle, were destroyed.
Capt. Justin Steele took his 48-foot Viking, Blue Water Connection, from Panama City Beach, Fla., to Orange Beach, Ala., to wait out the storm. A day after Michael struck, he headed back to Capt. Anderson’s Marina to see how it had fared. “A lot of people stayed, and from what I understand, probably half the boats in that marina are lost,” Steele says.
Marinas and dealerships in the area didn’t fare as well as the charter businesses. Pirate’s Cove, Treasure Island and Lighthouse Marina, all in Panama City, either lost their dry stack buildings or they sustained significant damage. Video of Pirate’s Cove after the storm was all over social media; a large section of the dry-stack roof was missing, and the boats inside were in a pile.
“It’s a war zone,” says Scott Cunningham, executive vice president of OneWater Marine. “There’s no fuel. There’s no power to pump fuel. There’s no water, no ice. This is the Katrina of the Panhandle, and it just starts at Panama City Beach.”
OneWater Marine owns nine marinas and dealerships in the Panhandle. Legendary Marina and Sunrise Marine flank Pirate’s Cove and came through the storm with minimal damage, Cunningham says. At the Legendary Marine in Destin, employees moved more than 700 boats inside, and the dry stack building held up well in the 50-mph winds recorded locally. There was some damage on the docks, but it was nothing compared to Panama City Beach. OneWater implemented its 72-hour hurricane plan on Oct. 8.
Matt Mueller manages the Freedom Boat Club franchise based at Lighthouse Marina in Panama City Beach. He evacuated to Gulf Breeze, Fla., Oct. 9 when the storm escalated. “Category 4 was not what we were expecting,” he says.
Chris Jennings owns Panama City Beach Paddleboard Rentals. His home was built to withstand a Category 4 storm and fared well in the storm, as did his business.
At MarineMax Panama City, employees were trying to access the dealership, but hazardous road conditions made travel difficult. All team members were accounted for, and the company asked customers to check its Facebook and Web pages for updates.
Mexico City and Port St. Joe took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael. Port St. Joe Marina’s dry stack building was destroyed. Entire neighborhoods in both towns were leveled. “Over the bridge, it was total decimation,” Jennings says. “Mexico Beach is under water up to the roof lines.”
Reports put the death toll at 14 two days after the storm, and roughly 2 million people were without power from Florida to Virginia, with more than 500,000 powerless in Virginia alone.
The National Hurricane Center tracked Michael for close to a week, but the speed with which the storm intensified was daunting. “I’ve been down here a long time, and we start shaking when we see these things blow up so fast,” Cunningham says. “When it hits the warm water in the Gulf, it’s like you lit a fire under it.”
The water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico was 87 degrees. “It damn sure gave that storm what it needed,” Steele says.
Some people were caught off guard by how quickly the storm strengthened, but the forecasts, by most accounts, were accurate. Michael was a Category 2 hurricane on Oct. 9 and was just shy of Category 5 when it made landfall the next day as the fourth strongest hurricane to strike the United States. Its steering winds also were higher than recent storms, tracking at 12 mph in the days leading up to landfall. By the time Michael left the Carolinas, it was moving at more than 20 mph.
Michael also was a large storm, estimated at 350 miles across and with a 90-mile diameter of hurricane-force winds. “It took everybody by a little bit of a surprise,” says Jeremy Holcomb, vice president of operations at Legendary Marine in Destin. “We knew it was out there, but we didn’t know it was going to get as big as it did.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue.