Terry Connor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was published just days after Hurricane Michael’s landfall. It’s been revised slightly but still highlights the impact the storm had on lives hundreds of miles from the Gulf Coast.

The names often roll off the tongue like unforgettable house guests you hope never again darken your door. Frederic, Elena, Opal, Ivan, and Katrina – a few Gulf Coast hurricanes never to be forgotten.

All of these monstrous storms, and others, have impacted my life in different ways for 50-plus years whether as a youth growing up in south-central Alabama or later in life while working in this state, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. In addition to hurricanes, deadly tornadoes during a four-year stint in Norman, Oklahoma, are sketched vividly in my weather memories. It’s part of my life’s profession as a journalist.

It’s never easy coping with acts of nature sometimes so horrific that you catch yourself second-guessing your faith while at the same time feverishly praying for help and guidance.

This was never truer than this week when Hurricane Michael took aim at the Florida Panhandle.

It’s one thing when a major weather event impacts your own life, but when you’re hundreds of miles away and the storm’s bullseye is where your son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter, extended family and friends live, it’s different. The storm brings a new meaning to the phrase “Living through Hell.”

This is especially the case when your son and his wife, longtime first responders as paramedics, are still on the front lines, Chris as a flight medic for ShandsCair and Joslyn as an ICU nurse at Bay Medical Sacred Heart in Panama City. Yes, the same Bay Medical that took a direct hit from Michael that Wednesday.

Like so many tropical storms, the first hint was just a blip on the radar last Saturday as most eyes in this state were on college football. Then sometime between late Saturday and Monday, it all changed. No longer just a tropical storm, Michael was upgraded to a hurricane heading north in the Gulf and gaining strength.

A series of texts and calls started Monday morning, and before 10 p.m., my granddaughter Rebel was at our Cullman front door, courtesy of her uncle Zane who got out of Panama City Beach before the mandatory evacuation.

Chris and Joslyn remained in Michael’s path to help because that’s what they do. It’s a profession that’s often taken for granted until an emergency. As we soon learned, Michael would be more than an emergency. He was a monster.

After quickly boarding up their house about two blocks from the beach, Chris headed toward his flight station to the west and Joslyn left for the hospital not knowing if their home would survive the storm.

A string of endless texts, calls, and FaceTimes followed although there was little to do except wait, pray, and hope. The hours were gut-wrenching and grew tighter with every Weather Channel report from Panama City Beach.

Chris was safe to the west, but it was several hours before Joslyn made contact letting us know she was OK after literally living through a nightmare. Thankful they were OK as the skies began to clear over the Gulf, the focus turned to their house. Was it still standing or not?

At 1:42 a.m. Thursday, a text from Chris, who was still at work in a nearby county, read: “From a cop friend, Your house looks good. Couldn’t get in the back yard to check. But looks OK. Beach is not bad. The other side of the bridge is another story.”

The text thread included several stunning damage photos of the hospital where Joslyn and her co-workers were working through the night evacuating and caring for patients.

My relief was an overwhelming mix of thanks and grief shadowed by a proud feeling of my frontline heroes, Chris and Joslyn, as I stared into the darkness unable to sleep as tears filled my eyes.

As the images from Panama City, Mexico Beach, and beyond continue to surface, the emotions return. I again thank God for sparing my family and pray for those who were not as fortunate. Michael, and his arrival on Oct. 10, 2018, changed lives forever.

P.S. As we mark Michael’s anniversary, Chris, Joslyn and Rebel are moving forward despite the physical and mental scars across their community that will linger for years. They’ve bought a new house, although they still own their home near the beach. Chris still works for ShandsCair, but Joslyn is now working at Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center after being one of the hundreds who lost their jobs at Bay Medical due to Michael’s impact. And, Rebel, who, along with other Bay County students missed many school days last year, is now a first grader, and her outgoing and optimistic personality, laughter and contagious youthful spirit are constant reminders that we are blessed and life is good.

Terry Connor is editor of The Eagle and can be reached at tconnor@dothaneagle.com.

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