As Hurricane Michael roared through and leveled portions of the Florida Panhandle this week, Matt Brandman heard the winds from the outer bands passing over his hotel in Biloxi, Miss.
The Bedford High School and University of Toledo graduate evacuated early Tuesday ahead of the storm and reunited with his wife and children. His mother stayed behind about 20 miles west of Panama City, Fla., taking refuge at his home in Santa Rosa Beach where conditions were much worse.
Mr. Brandman's home is fine, minus the garbage in his pool and lack of power. His business, however, may not have been so lucky.
“I came back today by myself and I’m going to pick my business partner up and see if we can get to our office,” Mr. Brandman said. “It’s probably not there anymore — it was right in the path of the eye.”
His home building business is in Panama City Beach, which was one of the areas hardest hit by the deadly Category 4 hurricane. He said half of the 60 homes he’s building are in good shape, but doesn't know about the others.
Mr. Brandman and his 17 employees tore down walls from several homes in progress and nailed them to the floor in the days leading up to Michael’s landfall.
"We can’t get to [the other homes] because they shut down the bridge that gets you to the other side of town,” Mr. Brandman said. “On the other side it’s just massive devastation; it’s unbelievable. Power poles are snapped in half. Power lines are all over the road. There are major corridors where you can't even tell what they are."
His business partner sent him a photo of an intersection near their business and Mr. Brandman didn't recognize it. He said there are 50-mile stretches with no electricity.
Chaz Nay has a similar story to tell.
Mr. Nay owned a tattoo shop in Toledo for 10 years before moving to Panama City Beach eight years ago. He initially planned on riding out the storm but changed his mind late Tuesday and booked a hotel in Pensacola, about 100 miles west.
His restaurant, C Level Grill, is just feet from the Gulf of Mexico in Panama City Beach. Initial reports to Mr. Nay suggested the building got through unscathed, but the reality now appears different.
"I just had some buddies go over there and climb up on the roof, and they're like, ‘Yeah, your roof's gone,’” Mr. Nay said. “I would think everything is salvageable inside, but all the products inside will be gone for sure. Good thing we have insurance. We’ll probably be out of business at least a month or more.”
Mr. Nay spent Thursday trying to find a hotel with occupancy in Destin, Fla. He said hotels west of Panama City Beach are booked for miles and packed with guests unable to get home.
Mr. Nay's house is at the base of the Hathaway Bridge, a three-mile stretch that separates the beach from the city. He said "not a shingle is missing," but knows it was a narrow miss.
"You're talking about a three-mile separation from just bad to total destruction," he said. "In town on 23rd Street, I heard it looks like a nuclear bomb went off. Every building is blown over, trees down everywhere. It hurts really bad."
Perhaps the area most pummeled by Michael was Mexico Beach, about 20 miles southeast of Panama City. The small coastal town was face-to-face with the eastern edge of the eye wall.
Mr. Brandman said his family often vacations there.
"Some of the best in-shore fishing in the world, old cottages, stilt homes," Mr. Brandman said. “It’s just gone. It doesn’t exist anymore.”
UT graduate Daniel Lam spent more than 20 years working in the Detroit area before moving to Panama City Beach two and a half years ago. His high-rise apartment building in Panama City Beach is fine, but he's not sure when he'll be able to return home from Houston.
"I've seen pictures and videos of the places around my resort area that were blown away," Mr. Lam said. "I'm sure when I get back into town the damage will still be there. I don't even know if I'll be able to get into the area [Friday] night."
Those who were able to return home are already picking up the pieces, including Mr. Brandman. He said he and his partner planned to spend Thursday rounding up bottled water, generators, and chain saws to help however they could.
“You never think it's going to happen to you, especially not a Yankee like myself coming from Ohio,” Mr. Brandman said. “There will be a lot of rebuilding, but this is when people come together and you see the better side of people. You don't see a lot of that these days.”
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