When Category 4 Hurricane Michael struck the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday, October 11, it was the third-most powerful hurricane to ever hit the United States. According to a report from National Geographic, the maximum wind speed for the storm reached 155 miles per hour.
The devastation left in Michael’s wake is still being calculated, and it will likely be some time before officials can say definitively what the final toll is. According to The Weather Channel, the storm has already claimed 18 lives, and has likely caused billions of dollars worth of damage to the region. Several small communities such as Panama City Beach, Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, and Carrabelle may take several years to fully recover.
I was able to speak briefly with flight paramedic Kitt Hunter, who currently works for a civilian helicopter ambulance service based near Panama City, Florida. I have known Kitt since 2011, and worked with him at the ground ambulance service in 2012 and 2013.
Kitt and his crew have been working nearly nonstop since Thursday morning when the weather was finally calm enough for flight operations. Kitt fly’s on a modified Bell 407 GX, which carries a crew of three and can take one patient at a time. Because of their advanced training, the flight crew can perform several of the same treatments one would find in a modern Intensive Care Unit of Emergency Department.
Joe: Can you give us a run down of the last few days, starting before the storm?
Kitt: The storm came up on us pretty quick, but luckily our bosses were keeping an eye on it, so when we saw it was going to hit us, we immediately moved the aircraft out of harm’s way on Tuesday. I rode the storm out in my house in South Walton, about an hour west of Panama City, on Wednesday. And reported to the airport on Thursday morning.
Our helicopter was joined by two other helicopters from our service that flew in from other parts of the state. We gave a presentation about Panhandle operations — locations of helipads and potential landings zones, normal weather patterns, stuff like that — but then we immediately went to work. Our service was contracted by one of the large hospitals in Panama City, so we knew going in our first priority would be to evacuate those patients. Our priority patients were all from the ICU and were ventilated –which means they were hooked to breathing machines — so we needed to get them out of there as soon a possible.
Once we started we didn’t stop for a few days, there were so many patients that needed to get out.
Joe: What were the conditions like inside the hospital?
Kitt: Pretty abysmal. Part of the Hospital’s exterior wall had collapsed, they were running on limited generator power so there was very little light inside. There was no running water and there was sewage running through the halls, and we had to make a path through the sewage to get from the entrance to where our patients were.
One thing that did make me feel a little more hopeful about the situation is how hard most of the nurses and doctors were working to get their patients out of there. There were a few staff members crying in the corner, but for the most part everyone was working as a team to provide the best care for the patients.
There is another hospital we eventually flew to as well in the same area that had lost its roof. So you can imagine things in there were just as bad, if not worse.
Joe: And where were you taking the patients? The whole area is pretty devastated, right?
Kitt: Right. So we transported the majority of our patients to Pensacola, but some went to Mobile, and Tallahassee. The area around Panama City is almost completely destroyed. Not only the coastal areas, but the mainland too. One of the hospitals further inland was completely destroyed, and I think there is only one hospital between Destin and Tallahassee that is operational. Only problem is that the roads are so impassible, so that facility can’t get medicine delivered, so we are beginning to fly patients out of there too.
As far as the damage, its catastrophic; there are whole areas that are just gone. From the air, you can’t really see the debris, so a lot of the areas that used to be these small, old Florida towns just look empty. Once you’re on the ground you can see the pieces of debris, the house slabs and concrete stairs but not much else. We were flying over Mexico Beach — which we normally fly over almost every shift so we’re used to seeing familiar landmarks — and we didn’t even realize we were over it because it looks so empty.
Joe: Who initially was coordinating recovery efforts.
Kitt: It was very much up to the local emergency managers to direct assets at first. We already had our orders before the storm hit, and I attribute our success to the planning skills of our bosses. But other services weren’t so fortunate, and the storm has knocked out almost all forms of communication.
There is no internet or phone service, and the radio towers were destroyed as well. One of the counties lost its entire 911 dispatch center, and I’m not sure how they are coordinating response. FEMA was on the ground Thursday, but I haven’t had much interaction with them.
Joe: Does the military have a presence there?
Kitt: Definitely. The Army National Guard showed up and set up small mobile hospitals in place of the hospitals that were destroyed, and we started taking patients out of there as well, but I think that — especially in some of the rural areas — patients are getting just as good care from the National Guard’s aid stations as they would have gotten from the hospitals.
The Navy and the Coast Guard are here as well, but each service seems to be operating independently in a designated zone. For example, the Navy is handling a lot of the recovery and medivac missions in Mexico Beach, and the Coast Guard is mainly in Port St. Joe and further east.
We’ve since been more or less tasked with serving Panama City. There is a ton of air traffic in the area — you can look out at the horizon and see a ship in almost every direction — but that also makes it a little more dangerous, so that might be one reason why the different services are deployed like that.