The muggy air hung heavy over the small Gulf Coast town of Panacea on Tuesday as Hurricane Michael churned toward the Florida Panhandle. Grey clouds glided quickly across the sky over the main street’s shuttered seafood shacks.
Storm surges, combined with the new moon tide, were expected to rise in this area anywhere from nine to 13 feet. By Tuesday afternoon, sheriff’s deputies had already knocked on doors twice. The first time, it was to urge people to leave. The second: taking down the information and next-of-kin of those who remained — of which there are many.
Mandatory evacuation orders were in full effect for coastal areas like Panacea in Wakulla County. In total, 13 Florida counties issued mandatory evacuations, some applying to the entire county while others were only for areas most vulnerable to the storm surge.
“I understand that evacuations are inconvenient,” Gov. Rick Scott warned on Twitter Tuesday. “(But) if you have been told to leave, you need to go.”
Yet many residents here, including some at a mobile home park, were determined to stay put — or worse, they had no choice but to stay because they lack the means to leave Panacea.
“The main reason, they probably won’t tell you that, but it’s because they don’t have the money,” said Wesley Byrd, 80. “Half the people in this town don’t have a driver’s license, don’t have a car. They ride bicycles and golf carts ... I’ve been here long enough I know them all. They’re poor. They’re fishermen.”
Byrd drove his cherry red golf cart toward his mobile home park with a Natural Light beer in tow. He said he was planning to leave his home of 36 years, but only to go down the street to a friend’s house, which is even closer to Dickerson Bay but sturdier than his home — and lifted off the ground by stilts.
Byrd’s neighbor, 18-year-old Jenna Clark, said she wants to leave but her father would never agree. He’s a lifelong resident of the area, and his cabinet business is just down the road. He also catches stone crab in the bay.
“Everything is here,” she said. “People around here honestly have nowhere else to go.”
Wakulla County has one hurricane shelter, a local elementary school — but it is not fortified to withstand winds above a Category 2 storm. Hurricane Michael is predicted to make landfall as a Category 3, meaning the people of this county and others near the Gulf must make their way elsewhere, like Leon County, where officials plan to open five high schools for refugees.
Franklin County, the home of Apalachicola, also does not have a shelter.
While Panacea is very poor, it’s not unlike other cities in mandatory evacuation zones. Three of the major counties facing massive potential storm surges have cities and towns with low median incomes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Panacea’s median income is just over $33,300, lower than nearby Panama City ($38,400), Port St. Joe ($40,600) and St. Marks ($48,400).
Many in these communities live in flimsy mobile homes. In Panacea, the only grocery store in town is a Dollar General.
Clark said even if the shelter had been open, they still would’ve stayed.
“Our dog is here, Buster,” she said. “He’s my dad’s best friend.”
At 12:30 p.m. a school bus hired by Wakulla County to take residents to Leon County sat empty in a parking lot. Not a single person climbed aboard.
Several residents also expressed skepticism about the urgency to leave, citing warnings about Hurricane Irma last year. Irma was predicted to produce mass damage on the Florida mainland but left many communities unscathed as it unleashed most of its power on Cuba and the Florida Keys.
Robert and Diana Donelle, who have lived in Panacea for 11 years, said they evacuated to Crawfordsville during Irma, but returned to see their home untouched.
“Last year we took a lot of stuff, but everything was fine,” said Diana, 78. “There were hardly any branches down.”
But this storm, at least so far, promises to be different for the Gulf region. The National Hurricane Center even pointed out little Panacea, a town with fewer than 1,000 people, and its surrounding area as a “trouble spot” for storm surge.
“You may be able to survive wind, but you’re not going to survive water,” said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the center. “This is the storm that will kill you, if you don’t get out of its way.”
Still, on the eve of the storm’s arrival, Matthew Hurley, a 19-year-old fisherman, bounced a basketball and listened to music while taking a break from boarding up windows and tying down boats.
“I’ve just never known my grandpa to leave,” he said. “It’s just natural to stay.”
Staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report.
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