Standing in the gap: Station Panama City

Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin

Members of the disaster relief volunteer crew from Coast Guard Station Panama City, Fla., pose for a group photo with local resident, Mr. Clause, after assisting with clean up after Hurricane Michael. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

Members of the disaster relief volunteer crew from Coast Guard Station Panama City, Fla., pose for a group photo with local resident, Mr. Clause, after assisting with clean up after Hurricane Michael. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

In the early morning hours after Hurricane Michael made landfall, Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Kannan began the arduous journey back to Coast Guard Station Panama City, where he serves as the officer in charge.

As he drove back to the station, the magnitude of the devastation forced him to consider the logistics of his planned mission: getting the station’s search and rescue services back up and running again.

“I barely recognized the area,” Kannan said. “I’ve been through hurricanes before, but this looked more like a bomb had been dropped on the city.

“I planned on calling the crew back to the area as soon as possible, but after driving into Panama City that morning after the storm, I realized that many of them may not have a home to come back to,” he continued.

With ingenuity and no small degree of resourcefulness, Kannan and a small crew of station personnel managed to put together a disaster response trailer to get out to Coast Guard members’ homes to assess the damage.

As word of their assessment work spread, Coast Guard personnel who had homes in the area began reaching out, seeking out the welfare of their homes before deciding when it was safe to go back to Panama City.

The team wound up assessing over 120 homes of Coast Guard members, putting in over 400 man hours clearing trees, tarping damaged roofs, and removing the detritus that enveloped the city. It was in these early days after the storm, Kannan and the crew realized that the overwhelming needs of the community beckoned them to expand their mission and outreach.

A recent afternoon in early November, almost one month after the hurricane hit, highlighted how the station’s relief efforts grew to include providing relief services to people throughout the community.

A home in Panama City, Fla., is damaged from Hurricane Michael. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

A home in Panama City, Fla., is damaged from Hurricane Michael. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

Small Steps

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones”
— Confucius.

This is an apt quote for the residents along the Florida Panhandle recovering from Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm on record in the Panhandle. Michael became the strongest storm to hit the contiguous United States since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

The sheer volume of trees and debris stacked up along the road and in any open space not already piled high from the remnants of the storm overcomes anyone walking down the street in the city. Houses are in all kinds of disarray, disrepair or utterly destroyed.

Tucked inside a little inlet ominously named Alligator Bayou, Station Panama City is humming with activity, as boat crews are getting underway for patrol and law enforcement activities on the Gulf of Mexico. Inside the training room hangs the volunteer board to join the disaster relief crew.

Although the station is up and running with around-the-clock law enforcement and search and rescue operations, they continue to maintain a 24/7 disaster relief schedule. Although not compulsory, there is no shortage of volunteers to go out into the community and provide the much needed relief for area residents.

Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Dunn and Petty Officer 2nd Class Cody Smith cut and haul away downed trees from a resident's backyard as part of the volunteer disaster relief crew from Coast Guard Station Panama City, Fla. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Dunn and Petty Officer 2nd Class Cody Smith cut and haul away downed trees from a resident’s backyard as part of the volunteer disaster relief crew from Coast Guard Station Panama City, Fla. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

One particularly robust volunteer is Petty Officer 2nd Class Cody Smith, a gunner’s mate who has proven to be quite adept with a chain saw. Smith’s name appears on the board almost every day. He loves the fact that he gets to help his Panama City neighbors so directly.

“We get to put a smile on people’s faces and make the road to recovery just a little smoother,” Smith said.

The five-man crew also includes Petty Officer 1st class Matthew Dunn, a boatswain’s mate from Station Cape May who volunteered to fill in the gaps caused by station personnel who were victims of the storm as well.

“When I first volunteered, I never imagined we would be out in the community in such a direct way,” Dunn said. “This is not part of the normal Coast Guard mission, so I have nothing to compare this amazing experience to.”

Dunn was quick to mention a particular resident who goes by the named “Mr. Clause” (who also happens to have a distinct long white beard and appears in the cover photo) who made an indelible impression on the whole crew. With his trailer home split in two, a neighbor of Mr. Clause caught wind of the Coast Guard’s disaster relief efforts and reached out to the station’s Facebook page to ask for assistance on behalf of Mr. Clause.

While tarping the man’s destroyed roof and hauling away the molded remnants from the storm, the crew learned that Mr. Clause was usually on the giving end: helping out his neighbors and the community. An advocate for young, disenfranchised youth in his working-class neighborhood, he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of help on his behalf.

Dunn concluded his recollection by saying that “stories like these will be with me long after I return home to the East Coast.”

Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Kannan clears fallen trees for an elderly resident of Panama City, Fla. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Kannan clears fallen trees for an elderly resident of Panama City, Fla. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

The Long Road Ahead

As the crew got to work cutting down partially fallen trees, threatening to crash through the roof of a single story dwelling owned by an elderly resident, a neighbor named Faye came over to find out if she could get some help for her 80-year-old mother who lived across the street.

Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Kannan stands for a photo at Coast Guard Station Panama City, Fla. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Kannan stands for a photo at Coast Guard Station Panama City, Fla. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin.

“Seeing y’all [the Coast Guard] out here brings us some hope that things will get better,” Faye said.

This story played out every day, as residents sought out assistance at a time when the needs far outweighed the resources available for help.

In some instances, people live in homes literally cut in half by Michael’s power.

“When you see those conditions, you do all that you can,” Kannan said. “We couldn’t just neglect the needs that were before us.”

Every evening, the crew debriefed and figured out a schedule to help residents, focusing on the elderly or infirm.

How long will the volunteer services continue? That’s part of the larger question of how long it will take for the city to fully recover. Estimates are unreliable with so many uncertainties and daily challenges that constantly spring up. As his career approaches the 30-year mark and retirement looms, Kannan is unabashed as he reflects on what he and the entire station have been able to accomplish.

“The public impact we’ve had has been tremendous,” Kannan said. “What a small group can do in a small service has inspired me to no ends.”

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