By Joe LacdanDecember 4, 2018
PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- Nearly two months after Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida panhandle coast, much of Panama City still feels its impact.
Single-family homes still lay in tatters. A battered auto repair shop with a caved-in roof sits empty. Residents have placed high piles of trash in their lawns that include old beds, furniture and debris from destroyed parts of houses.
Michael, a category 4 hurricane with 155-mile per hour winds, made landfall, Oct. 10, in nearby Mexico Beach, Florida.
Instructors at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center hustled students 23 miles north, Oct. 9, when Michael's strong winds descended upon the school located in the Upper Grand Lagoon section of Panama City.
Army administrators gave the five Army Engineer Diver students the option of returning to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where the training began, or remaining in Panama City to help with the relief efforts.
The Army's five dive school students didn't hesitate to stay and help.
"They were motivated every day," Capt. Jacob McCorkle said. "It did not really take much purpose or direction on our part. All of our (Advanced Individual Training) students embraced it."
The five Soldiers traveled to three locations in Bay County: the Panama City Beach area just west of the dive school, Lynn Haven in the north, and one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods, Callaway. The Soldiers, along with the diving school instructors and Army Leadership Training students, helped clear driveways, move fallen trees and transport elderly and handicapped residents. The students did not resume classes at NDST until Nov. 23.
Drill Sgt. David Bryan Craig said the devastation stunned him. Nearly 130,000 insurance claims have been filed as of Dec. 4, with 78,185 filed in Bay County alone, according to news reports
"It really struck home how bad the entire community was," Craig said. "I didn't just worry about myself anymore. All of my staff, all of my students felt the same way."
"(The neighborhoods) were terrible," said McCorkle, commander of A Company, 169th Engineering Battalion. "Some of the houses were unlivable."
McCorkle estimated one in every five homes the Soldiers visited were totaled. The storm tore through the Panama City Mall and only two of the stores have reopened.
The Soldiers willingly helped the Red Cross set up shelters, even as they sought sanctuary themselves, McCorkle said. They also helped moved debris to free some residents who were trapped in their homes.
The diving school students didn't return to their lodging at the Navy Gateway Inn until Nov. 7, after the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City reopened. The Army students stayed at nearby Eglin Air Force Base while cleanups and repairs took place at the NSWC
Craig said many residents expressed their appreciation to the Soldiers, who had to suspend training for seven weeks.
"Definitely lots of tears shed," Craig said. "It was a lot of sweaty days. Just seeing the destruction, having to clear our way through the streets, we just said 'Let's get everything together and help each other out.'"
Members of the Florida National Guard assisted with the relief efforts and the Army Corps of Engineers announced in its fiscal budget report that it would provide $4 million toward Port Panama's dredging projects.