By Savannah Hill
Growing up, most of us forget to appreciate the area we come from. Hometowns are places we hope to visit when we’re older, but once we leave our parents’ homes we don’t look back, planning our future lives in cities bigger and brighter than the ones that raised us. I moved to Panama City when I was three months old. I lived in the same house, in the same neighborhood, near the same people for my entire life. When I moved to Gainesville for college I swore I’d move somewhere else after graduation. Panama City was my hometown, but I couldn’t see myself going back to the place I grew up after getting my degree. Spring break and tourism dominated my little beach town, and it wasn’t what I wanted my future to be.
When Hurricane Michael, the third most powerful storm in history to hit the US, ravaged Panama City in October, everything was different. I was working the day it happened, sneaking peeks at my phone to look for text updates from my mom about the status of our house. My parents rode out the storm, and the fear in my mom’s text messages was palpable. I begged my boss to let me go early, raced home and watched the Weather Channel for the remainder of the night. I looked on in shock as video footage of winds that sounded like a train barreling towards you destroyed the landmarks I knew and loved.
Every time my mom took longer than five minutes to reply to my messages I started to panic, looking on hundreds of miles away as the eye of the storm encompassed my parents’ home, my elementary school, the beaches I played on and the town that built me. As the storm passed, photos of destroyed businesses and homes that made up Panama City flashed across my screen. Most of what I saw was unrecognizable, I had to work to identify things like banks, churches and restaurants.
I spoke to my parents on the phone, holding back the pain I felt so that I could remain strong for them. Our home, like so many others, was wrecked. My bedroom took the worst of the hit, the roof completely breaking away from the rest of the house. A tree fell, breaking through the side of our house and resting in our dining room. Water damage was in every room, and for weeks following ,my parents slept in the living room while they waited for power to be restored.
As days passed, I obsessively checked Facebook, reading stories of friends and family back home. Seeing them suffer and being able to do absolutely nothing about it was indescribably frustrating. For a week following the storm, roads going in and out of Panama City were closed as they attempted to clean debris and downed power poles.
As soon as word got out that the roads were open again, I planned a trip home. I gathered supplies like gasoline and candles for my family and was off. What is normally a four-hour drive from Gainesville for me, turned into a six hour one. As I passed Tallahassee the conditions around me deteriorated. Driving through neighboring towns, smaller than my own, I began to cry. It seemed more real seeing it all for my own eyes rather than through a screen. The realization that these cities would never be the same sunk in, and I knew that my hometown and what it was to me was gone.
The damage, destruction and despair that Hurricane Michael caused my family forced me to realize how important a hometown truly is. For people my age, it’s easy to forget all the reasons the place where you grew up is significant. While knowing Panama City will never look like the place that helped make me who I am is hard to deal with, it has forced me to see the significance. My hometown is no longer even a town, but it is still my home. The people that shaped the formative years of my life are all still alive and well, and while it may take years for them to rebuild the town, eventually Panama City will be back. This time, it won’t take a hurricane to make me realize how much I love it.