MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. --
It was seemingly a normal day in Panama City Beach, Florida. But a stormy breeziness and rising tides hinted at the devastation that was to come. Thousands of residents there and in surrounding areas predicted to be in the path of Hurricane Michael were ordered to evacuate. Some did. Some didn’t.
Among those who did were some 3,500 Tyndall Air Force Base employees, all now displaced from their jobs and many from their homes. Some of them are now operating from Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
“I knew something was going on,” said Master Sgt. Kristen Redmon, whose waterfront home on the lagoon is only a five-minute car ride from the beach. “The water was encroaching on the dock and it was starting to get breezy.”
Knowing it would be irresponsible to stay when texts from the Air Force were mandating evacuation, she and her husband Geno, the cat Boo and dog Boogers loaded up in the car with maybe three days of clothing and an ice chest filled with basic items from the fridge. A supply of water and a generator were left behind for her best friend, a neighbor who planned to ride out the storm.
The Redmons left two days ahead of the hurricane but stayed in touch with the neighbor, who gave them a firsthand account of the storm’s scary eeriness via cellphone.
“I could hear the wind howling and the roof being ripped off,” she said.
In the middle of their conversation, they lost communications, she said. A tear eased down her cheek as she recalled that terrifying moment, not knowing for several days that her friend had survived.
At Maxwell, Redmon is doing the job she performed at Tyndall. The base, she said, is seriously damaged and her home is, too. In addition to windows being blown out, shingles ripped off the roof, the attic being lifted and sucked into the home and quarter-inch of water standing inside, the house is “dented all over” and the wrought iron fence now “looks like a tent.”
Her past experiences with an earthquake and ice storms don’t compare to the “tornado with water in it,” but like many of Hurricane Michael’s victims, she feels “embarrassed to say I have damage.”
“Our friends’ damage is really bad compared to ours,” she said.
The Southwest Airlines flight attendant, who works in Tyndall’s air operations control center as a civilian reservist, is on orders at Maxwell for now. She, Boo and Boogers are happy to be in Montgomery while she helps maintain Tyndall’s operations. Geno, a retired Air Force colonel, is back at the beach helping their neighbors recover from the shock, heartbreak and devastation.
“He took a trailer, backhoe, water and eight tanks of diesel fuel down there,” she said. “He’s exhausted emotionally and physically but there are only so many handymen workers and a ton of destruction.”
Lt. Col. Jim Clay, 1st Air Force director of CAP operations, feels lucky as well, though his home on Deer Point Lake on Panama City’s North Bay also suffered extensive damage.
“My damage was not as bad as others. It could have been a lot worse,” he said, referring to the 40 trees knocked down on his property, a boat dock ripped apart, broken windows, water intrusion and damage to the roof and soffits. The hurricane touched down a mile and a half from his home.
When it was apparent Hurricane Michael was headed for Tyndall, the base evacuation plan, which included plans for continuing operations, was put into place.
With his fiancé Catherine, a high school algebra teacher, and husky-shepherd mix Aliana in Georgia and already out of harm’s way, Clay relocated to Maxwell.
“I was on the verge of riding it out but changed my mind,” said Clay, realizing that if the worst-case scenario occurred, he needed to be able to continue to carry out his duties for 1st Air Force.
“No one got out of this storm without some type of damage,” said Clay, who shared heartwarming stories of the many selfless ways in which people responded to pleas for help issued on social media, via text message and radio station blasts.
“Neighbors are helping neighbors,” he said.
People are bringing gas cans and gas money, offering supplies and alerting emergency service providers regarding critical needs, like help in keeping the generators running at Catherine’s school, which was serving as a storm shelter.
“Coy Pilson (the principal) was manning the shelter and taking care of the needs of the community, putting their needs before his own,” said Clay.
And, there is Raymond Seibold, a small engine repairman, who fixed Clay’s generator despite his own pre-storm preparation needs. The generator was used to help keep a man suffering from stage 4 cancer alive.
“He was happy to oblige,” said Clay, adding, “I am blessed to have selfless people in my life.”
Looking to the future, Clay noted there are a lot of unknowns.
“There is no power, no water, no place to buy fuel, no place to buy food. Most have to travel to Dothan, Alabama (over 80 miles) to get fuel and supplies and most don’t have a place to go back to work,” he said.
Tyndall evacuees are spread out across the Southern U.S., said Col. Mark Wootan, Civil Air Patrol-U.S. Air Force vice commander.
“Several 1st Air Force folks were invited to come here (Maxwell). It makes them feel they still belong to a family, a team and it gives them a place to put down their hat,” he said.
“Their lives have been completely interrupted,” he continued. “We are opening the doors to them, our colleagues, so they can continue to work and function. It’s the right thing to do to help them get back to normal.”