PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - While we haven’t had major impacts from a hurricane in several years in Northwest Florida, memories from past storms still flood the minds of long time locals.
“I've lived here for 24 years,” Gabriele Graeter said. “We left [in past storms] that’s for sure, and Opal was the worst one. We got out ahead of time. We bought groceries in case we didn’t find a place. I also learned to have cash."
“I remember Opal,” Dick Clifton said, who’s lived in this area since 1994. “I had a marina in Apalachicola then. We had about a five foot water rise.”
“People were on the road. They had no food, no water, no medications, no place to go to the restroom,” Bay County Chief of Emergency Services Mark Bowen said. “I was working on 231 in Alford so we met a lot of these people, and we ran a lot of calls in Bay County and Jackson County to assist people.”
He said a lot of the calls wouldn’t have happened if people planned a little more and had basic necessities like food and water with them.
"The unfortunate thing about Opal, and of course it was a long time ago, but some people have told me I'm never going to evacuate again,” Bowen recalled. “We’re talking about inconvenience vs. death. When we call for an evacuation, we never do it lightly."
Florida Department of Transportation Spokesperson Ian Satter said we’ve seen big improvements to several major highways in the area.
“You have 79 and 77 that are being widened to four lanes,” he explained. “We have a study right now for 231 to widen it from four to six lanes. These are key hurricane evacuation routes, and we've made it an essential part of what we're doing as an agency to widen and improve those north/south roads from the coast all the way to I-10 so we can get those people evacuated as quickly as possible."
"With the construction that they've done on 79, and if you turn everything one direction northbound, I think you can get a lot of people out of here in a hurry,” Clifton said.
Officials say the key to make the process safe for everyone is if you’re told to evacuate, you should heed warnings.
“The longer you wait the less chance you have to get out of that storm path as quickly as possible and as safe as possible,” Satter said.
Bowen believes a little preparation goes a long way, and along with new technology like Alert Bay, it’ll be easier to stay informed while you’re away.
“During Opal we didn’t even have the Internet,” Bowen explained. “Now people can find out all kinds of information, and who wants to come back home if the power’s out, infrastructure’s down, and there are hazards? We have come a long way since Opal. We have Alert Bay now, and we want everyone to sign up.”
“I think people are more aware of the damage storms can do, but our constant communication with the state and local emergency operations center as well as the technology we have available today help us manage traffic,” Satter explained.
Attached to this article is a link to sign up for Alert Bay. Most of our other counties have their own mass notification system as well which you can find links to register. The counties will notify you during severe weather or provide other relevant information.
For more hurricane preparedness tips, come to the Panama City Mall Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Vipir Weather Team will be glad to go over any suggestions.