Former U.P. residents’ Florida home was in category 4 hurricane’s path


The First Baptist Church of Port St. Joe, Florida, sustained severe damage during Hurricane Michael when the storm struck the community Oct. 18 last year. (Photo courtesy of Nina Kaufman)


Story and photo by 8-18 Media

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when we think of a big storm we think of below zero windchills, blowing snow and icy roads.  Traveling during a winter storm can be dangerous and sometimes there are power outages, but usually, within a day or two after the storm, it’s business as usual. Two former U.P. residents, Dennis Whitley and his daughter Lane Whitley, moved to Florida four years ago and this past October experienced a storm of a different kind.
They live in Port St. Joe, Florida, and found themselves in the direct path of Hurricane Michael. Hurricane Michael, a category 4 storm that hit the panhandle of Florida on Oct. 10. It was the strongest storm on record to hit the Florida panhandle and, according to an article published by the Panama City News Herald, a report due out in April will determine if it was officially a category 5 storm. 8-18 Media talked to both Dennis and Lane about their experience and how the storm affected their lives.

How much-advanced warning was there that you would be in the path of Hurricane Michael and that you would need to evacuate?
Dennis: We had a fair amount of warning. We could tell. I could tell it was coming right over us, I didn’t care if it was category 2, 3, or 5, I wanted to go just because I was just looking at the track of it and the projected path, all of the models that you look at, all of them were agreeing it was going to come right over us. We evacuated fairly early. We went to Perry Florida, which I knew was going to be far enough east to get out of it.

Can you describe how you prepared your house for the oncoming hurricane?
Dennis: We have two really big windows in our two bedrooms and I boarded them up with a layer of two-by-fours around the windows and screwed plywood to the windows. We picked up all of our loose stuff, our lawn chairs, and stuff like that and stuck them in our sheds.

How did you prepare for an evacuation? How did you pack?
Lane: I was with my boyfriend at the time. He has his own house; it’s a brick house. We thought we were going to be okay because it’s brick. So what happened? 5 a.m. hit, he tapped me on the shoulder, woke me up and said it’s a cat 5, we are leaving. What we did to prepare to leave was we called my parents, they were about three hours away far away from water and storm surge and everything and asked if we could crash with them … Basically, we picked up all of the stuff that we had, all our valuables that we had, we put them in his closet on the very, very top shelf. We grabbed anything that we could use at the actual hotel to survive: we grabbed a couple of blankets, we grabbed flashlights we grabbed batteries … We grabbed as much food as we could. We put a bunch of our perishable food into a cooler. We packed up extra gas cans because we figured by the time we got back there would be no gas stations left. We were right … The process sounds like it took a while but really it was us running around like chickens with our heads cut-off for 10 minutes and then we were gone.

What was the most challenging part of the experience for you?
Dennis: The most challenging part was being evacuated over in Perry and not fully understanding what shape our house was in and not being able to get back home. About the third day I tried by myself to get back into the city of Port St. Joe and the road started getting narrower and narrower with trees down and pretty soon I started realizing I was in the way of emergency vehicles who were trying to make it to Port St. Joe, so I turned around and we waited two more days. Hundreds and hundreds of tree service trucks came and started cutting trees off of roads and started cutting trees off of side roads and then an army of power trucks from all around the southeast followed them and started putting power lines back up. You wouldn’t believe the city blocks of power trucks.

After you were able to return home how did the storm affect your property and the town? Are you still rebuilding?
Dennis: We either got lucky or we were smart, however you want to look at it. We bought a house in a small neighborhood that you can visually see starts heading uphill and so had heard from old timers in our neighborhood that water had never gotten up our street. We were lucky. We live on a one block dead end street on the edge of town and the people down at the beginning of our block did get water in their house and they now have big piles of drywall and couches and bedding, tables and everything else by the curb to be picked up by the county, but the water did not get up the street to our house or our neighbors. However, we are remodeling our house and have been for years and we are getting close to getting finished, but because we keep putting new windows in we haven’t put siding on the house yet. It’s basically plywood out there so normal weather doesn’t blow through this plywood but the hurricane did blow through the cracks, so we did get some water damage. Right now I’m still repairing some drywall I did about two months ago and I had to pull out some wet insulation and run a fan in our attack for several days and I’ve replaced some insulation.

Is your town still cleaning up the aftermath of Hurricane Michael?
Lane: It was probably one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever experienced, driving back into town after the storm when we were actually able to. They weren’t letting people in for a couple of days, but they finally started letting actual residents back in and seeing everyone’s …all of their furniture, all of their family pictures, just everything, drywall, trees on the side of the roads. It really breaks your heart because those are peoples’ whole lives sitting out on a street corner and it’s hard to explain how immensely sad it is, but everybody in town came together so the people who did lose things had an immeasurable amount of friends who came out to help them carry out their stuff, and rip out the carpets and help them to try and get rebuilt. Port St. Joe is battered, but not broken.

Story written by Anna Martinson, 14, with contributions by Anja McBride, 13 and Liam Ulland-Joy, 13.

This regular feature is produced by kids ages eight to eighteen in the 8-18 Media news bureau in Marquette. Our mission is to empower youth by giving them a significant voice. We report on youth issues that are of interest to all ages. In addition to stories in Marquette Monthly, we produce stories broadcast at 8:30 a.m. and 6:50 p.m. on Fridays on WMQT-Q107 Radio and at 9:34 a.m. on Sundays on WNMU Public Radio 90.
We thank the Great Lakes Center for Youth Development for its continued support.
If you have a story idea or would like to comment on our work, contact us at 8-18 Media, 123 West Baraga Avenue, Marquette, MI 49855, call 226-3911 ext. 107, e-mail 8-18media@g-mail.com or visit www.upchildrensmuseum.com.
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