'It still looks like a warzone': Family with local ties endures Hurricane Michael

Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

All photos courtesy of Jeff Ready

While he wasn’t originally from Salem, Jeff Ready raised his family in Washington County. His three children went to school here. Now, four weeks after moving to Panama City, Florida, they are picking through what’s salvagable of their belongings and doing what they can to help their new neighbors in the wake of Hurricane

“I’ve been through ice storms, tornados, earthquakes and fires out west,” he said in a telephone interview last week, adding he and his children would chase tornados
from a safe distance. “This was a lot worse than we thought it would be.”

The days leading up to the storm were fairly tranquil.

“We went kayaking on Sunday,” Ready said. “On Monday, we were all thinking it could be a Category 1or 2 and we’ve had summer thunderstorms worse than that. We thought it wouldn’t be too bad to ride it out. We were on the edge of the evacuation zone.”

Still, as the storm grew closer and stronger, Ready said his family decided to evacuate to protect their vehicles from storm damage.

“We slept in our car the first night,” he said.

The Readys drove to Rutherford High School, about three miles east of the family’s new townhouse. That’s where they waited for the storm to begin. The wind picked up and around noon on Wednesday, Oct. 10, the power in the school went out.

“We were just watching the storm through the windows,” said Ready. “That was one of the worst things. It felt like it lasted forever. We didn’t see the eye, but for a bit, we could see daylight.”

The Category 4 storm battered Panama City and the rest of the Florida panhandle with up to 155 mph winds for about three hours before the eye put the storm on a comparative pause. Then everything came back in the opposite direction as the second half hit.

“Whatever wasn’t blown out the first time was blown out the second time.”

Due to pressure changes, Ready said a door protecting them and other families kept trying to open.

“It took six grown men with belts and ropes to try to keep the door shut,” he said. “It was a good hour of holding the door. Babies were crying, people were getting scared when windows broke open and the roof started to lift off.”

And then Michael moved off, leaving an unforgettable mark on those who rode through it.

“It’s almost hard to describe,” said Ready. “We wouldn’t move from here — we like it here — but we’ll never stay during a hurricane again.”

People began making their way outside, thinking the storm was over, but Ready said the wind picked up again and some gusts were more than 100 mph. Soon National Guardsmen were running through the halls, yelling, “Tornado!”

“That was one of the worst — I mean, all of it was the worst — but we all had to huddle up in the hallways for 20-25 minutes,” said Ready.

Fortunately for the Readys and the others taking shelter in the school, the tornado didn’t strike the building, but it did take out the subdivision next door. Finally, the storm was over and people emerged from the school to see what was left of their community.

“We went out to check on our cars and they were in the middle of the lot and they looked like they hadn’t been touched,” said Ready. “There were a lot of other cars with damage, but ours were OK.”

This was fortunate, because, despite the police telling people it wasn’t safe to leave yet, the Readys packed up their cars and left anyway, along with a handful of other families.

“There were four or five cars behind a sheriff’s deputy and we just followed him,” said Ready. “We had to cut through yards and go under power lines. People were out and would hold up the lines to let us through. It took 35 to 40 minutes to get home.”

Even for someone who had lived in a community for years, getting home would have been difficult, but for a family relatively new to the area, finding their way back home was even more challenging. Most of the landmarks — buildings and trees and stores and everything that makes the neighborhood look like itself — were damaged or destroyed, sometimes beyond recognition.

“We had to pull up the navigation system on our car,” said Ready. “Stop lights were gone, businesses we knew were destroyed or gone. We couldn’t get into our subdivision in our car, so we got out and walked in.”

It didn’t matter that their home was damaged, Ready said, they went in and slept for 12 hours. Then they started helping.

“We worked on clearing paths and got a list of people from church to do wellness checks. We’d get out on bicycles and get to places that hadn’t been accessible to others to make sure people were OK and bring them supplies.”

In between going out and doing what they could for others, the Readys took stock of their own situation. The ceiling in their master bedroom was caved in and water had seaped through the window sills in their sons’ windows. Their fireplace was pulled away from the walls and water that had come in through the second floor had left 18 inches of water on the first floor. The ceilings in the townhouse were saturated to the point of sagging.

“We spent the first two or three days photographing things and throwing it out,” said Ready. “We had boarded up windows, so they hadn’t broken, and we’d used sandbags as well, but water got through the sand.”

Ready said contractors came in with thermo imaging and told the family there wasn’t a room in the house that didn’t need to be gutted. Still, Ready said FEMA officials said the home was still liveable, so they weren’t eligible for temporary housing.

“We’ve been in the house every night since,” he said. “Our oldest son is part of the Walmart clean-up crew. We couldn’t leave without him … We’re going to wait and see what happens with the contractor, but we have nowhere else to go.”

Ready and his wife, Julie, run a software company. Without reliable Internet access, they can’t work, so they have been throwing themselves into the recovery of their new community.

By Wednesday, Oct. 24, things were starting to improve.

“We have power now, but still no cell service or Internet,” said Ready. “Everyone is in clean-up mode. Things look better and the roads are clear, but it still looks like a war zone.”

Ready said a lot of their neighbors are still gone. He said Bay County wasn’t letting people in or out for the first week or so. They discovered they could take Highway
98 and get out to access cell service.

“We were finally able to let people know we were OK on Friday,” he said. “Radio broadcasts told us if we left Bay County, we may not be allowed back in, but we had to leave to get gas and supplies. It literally looked like it does when you see pictures of Hiroshima. Places are just flattened.”

Communication was just as difficult for emergency personnel. Ready said a local radio station served as a way for emergency services to communicate because cell phones and police radios weren’t operational.

Ready said a lot of supplies have come in — things like food, water and chainsaws. Some of the things those affected need most are things like tarps, food and some kind of shelter, like tents.

“Shelters are set up, but they’re pretty full and we’re hearing FEMA is bringing temporary shelters in,” Ready said.

In a public Facebook post dated Thursday, Oct. 25, Ready said the contractor who checked out their townhouse said theirs “is the worst one I’ve seen so far.”

Currently, Ready said, they’re working on airing out the house and installing car air fresheners throughout the house, tied to the ceilings, to combat the smell of the damp, but, by Wednesday afternoon, they were still staying in the home. This changed on Thursday morning, Ready revealed in a Facebook post.

“Have to leave our home today so the contractors can remove walls and ceilings,” he wrote. “Not sure where we will be but we will keep you all posted. Spent last night trying to secure the things we could to protect them as we have no place to put anything. Drying out will take a few days, afterwards we will hopefully get a timeline estimate on getting things rebuilt. At least now we seem to have cell service back up throughout the day.”

He said there are “a lot of tents in a lot of yards.” The community is working hard to put itself back together.

“We can’t work right now, so there’s literally nothing else to do but help each other out,” said Ready. “It’s the only way to get through. The community has really rallied together to help. Those with cars can get meds and over-the-counter stuff to people who can’t get out.”

There’s still structural healing of homes and businesses, physical healing for those injured and emotional and psychological healing for those who have lost loved ones and those who endured the trauma that natural disasters bring with them.

“It’s really weird,” said Ready last Wednesday, “we have a light breeze right now, but because of the damage to the house, the wind sounds much stronger. It makes it really hard to sleep.

“Everyone is just now coming out of the shock phase,” he continued. “We’re all going through motions day by day. We just drive around looking for people to help. … Politics, religion, nothing matters here right now except helping each other.”

Ready said many of his neighbors feel like the country has forgotten them now that the TV news and other organizations are focusing more on other things. Simply hearing they aren’t forgotten can mean a lot to people recovering from disasters like this. That’s something organizations like Hoosiers Help hopes to provide, along with food and supplies. The group plans to make a trip to the Florida panhandle in December and is currently gathering supplies, which can be dropped off at Mt. Tabor Christian Church or Southern Hills Christian Church until Friday, Nov. 30. Financial donations may be sent to Hoosiers Help (FL Panhandle in the memo line) via Mt. Tabor Christian Church, 7380 W. Mt. Tabor Rd., Salem, Indiana, 47167. Click HERE for more on their upcoming trip.

For more information or to partner with Hoosiers Help in this effort, please leave a text or voicemail at 812-896-2212.


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