PANAMA CITY, Fla. – Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis returned to his hometown of Panama City, after hearing tales of friends losing roofs and worse as Hurricane Michael came ashore Wednesday as a Category 4 storm.
"Everything to the east of us is gone. The hospital that my kids were born in, it’s evacuated. The hospital I was born in has been evacuated. The parts of our community that you take for granted that are always there 24/7 are just no longer existent. The school I went to junior high, it’s gone," Patronis told News4Jax in an emotional one-on-one interview Friday. "So it’s a devastating set of effects on the county, but we’ve got to do our job."
Of the hundreds of urban search-and-rescue personnel, Patronis said, the first crew that arrived in Bay County was from Jacksonville.
"These guys, they left their homes. They left their families to come here and save lives in Bay County," he said. "So the 1,800 boots are on the ground right now, they’ve done about 90 percent of their inspection work to identify where individuals could be trapped so they can be saved. So then, the rebuilding starts."
Patronis stopped at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee while heading back home Thursday from Tampa, where his wife underwent breast-cancer surgery Wednesday. He said he made his entire family evacuate ahead of Michael.
As search and rescue efforts continue, Patronis urged Panhandle residents to be cautious and patient.
"There’s live wires around. Nobody is used to driving into their community and every power pole laying on the ground. That’s what we have right now in Bay County," he said. "So understand, if you are anxious, and look, a lot of Bay County evacuated to Jacksonville, they are all over there. It is safe there, just give us time. Highway 79 is open coming into Bay County right now. If you don’t have documentation proving you belong in Bay County, you will be turned away."
Another concern for Patronis, who is on the November ballot, is the potential of people preying on residents desperate for food and housing.
"There’s a lot of good taking place right now, just be careful of the bad. People are vulnerable right now. Somebody comes and knocks on the door and offers help, that’s fantastic but if it sounds too good to be true, is. Just be careful," he said. "So, ideally I would pay nothing in cash and understand your insurance isn’t going to cover landscape debris."
He urged those with questions about policy coverages or who need to help filing a claim to call his office's free Insurance Consumer Helpline at 1-877-MY-FL-FRO (693-5236).
"Call it," Patronis said. "It’s going to be open Saturday. It’s going to be open Sunday. It’s going to be taking calls next week."
Patronis, whose family owns the landmark Capt. Anderson’s Restaurant in Panama City, said the restaurant suffered little damage and will become a food and water distribution point.
"We’ve got a truckload of ice and water from Chaney Brothers, it came in last night. They came to my family’s restaurant and we posted on Facebook and organically, the whole truck emptied out in less than 40 minutes," Patronis said. "We had somewhere between 400 and 600 people lined up this morning at 8 a.m. to get ice and water."
For those looking for ways to give and donate to Michael relief, Patronis said, the best way to do so is through the state-sponsored Florida Disaster Fund.
Below are excerpts from the interview with Patronis:
News4Jax reporter Vic Micolucci: "Do you think that people outside of here don’t even understand the extent of the damage because the TV stations locally, they are not broadcasting. Most cell phones don’t work. there’s no internet. Literally, where we are, we’re basically cut off from civilization."
CFO and State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis: "We might as well be adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. So Facebook has been at least one way people have been communicating. If you’re on an AT&T phone or T-Mobile phone, you can get service."
Micolucci: "Should evacuees come back now or should they wait it out a couple of more days until things improve?
Patronis: "So right now, water is down, electricity is limited to the western part of Bay County, so if you want potable water, it’s not here. If you want internet, cable, communications, it’s not here. So if you have evacuated to a safe area, stay comfortable. Stay. Look, there is plenty of security on the ground here in Bay County, but if you can give us until Monday, I would love to say let’s wait and see how we look on Monday and we’ll take you back with open arms."
Micolucci: "We saw some areas, especially outside of Panama City, where the destruction is unimaginable. It’s unfathomable. It’s for the history books and we do know that there have been lives lost. What’s the latest there? It’s hard to even talk about but what do you know?"
Patronis: "Well, I mean, you got an area of Northwest Florida called Mexico Beach. It’s separated by Tyndall Air Force Base. And Mexico Beach is what it is, it’s a tourist destination. Lots of beach houses there and it was wiped off the map. It’s unfathomable to think people would actually endure staying during the storm, but stubborn people did and I just pray that there’s not any children, found, you know, because the children don’t have a choice if they can evacuate or not. Mom and dad, you know, can make the choice to leave. So our teams are doing everything they can away from their own families away from their own communities to come here and provide lifesaving assistance."
Micolucci: "Do you think the numbers are going to climb? I know we don’t want that."
Patronis: "I think we just need to prepare for the worst. If you see some of the drone footage that is out, that happened at Mexico Beach, and you’ve seen it, there’s structures and dwellings there if anybody was in them, there’s no way they could have survived."
Micolucci: "The people here are already out doing what they can to rebuild. They are so resilient they are staying so strong and optimistic, but I mean I can’t imagine this place being normal anytime soon?"
Patronis: "No, no. You know, Opal did a number on us. Hurricane Eloise did a number on us. This whole area was affected by tornadoes off of Hurricane Ivan. We come back. We come back. You know, Northwest Florida is an amazing place. You know, we’ll be fine. We’ll be fine. I thank God that Gov. (Rick) Scott has done such an amazing job of ensuring that (there are) boots on the ground, the DOT (Florida Department of Transportation) cleared roads the night the storm hit to allow our first responders and our urban search and rescue able to get in here. Urban Search and Rescue were not going to come in until daylight. DOT made it happen and cleared the road so we could get in. Forestry worked at it to clear the roads so we could get here sooner.
"I just ask, those evacuees that are away from this, that are seeing this, you know, be patient. There is not a lot of safety and comfort to come home to. Give us a chance."
Micolucci: "The state is watching. The country is watching. Even the world is watching, right now, the Florida Panhandle. And there’s a lot of good souls out there that want to help out. What do you recommend, because you have to be careful how you donate, how do you help? But what do the people here who are hurt the most, really need to get back on their feet?"
Patronis: "So if you look at the path of the storm as you got into some of the areas of Callaway and Wewahitchka and Marianna, there’s some real devastation that happened in the northern part of the county and in addition those counties. The St. Joe Company just announced yesterday they’re pledging $1 million to restoration support. You know, I’m sure there will be some type of designated fund afterward but as long as monies are going to the Salvation Army or the Red Cross, those are safe. You know, if you have an idea about GoFundMe, hit timeout on it and let's be focused on groups that already have boots on the ground that have a resource chain in place. So you know the Red Cross and Salvation Army are great places to start and as we have a better understanding of our needs we’ll be asking for that help."
Micolucci: "Should people be coming with truckloads of batteries and food?"
Patronis: "You know, I can tell them no, but they’re coming anyway and you know what, people are gladly accepting it.
"I still can’t get it out of my head that, you know, hospitals aren’t meant to be evacuated. Hospitals aren’t meant to be in such a stage of destruction that they can’t even provide basic services and that’s what we’ve got right now. If you just fathom that a minute, there’s not a whole lot for somebody to come, because if you’re sick, if you’re ill, if you’re diabetic, if you’re elderly, you don’t need to come back. You need to let us get back on our feet."
Micolucci: "How are you going to deal with all the people that are now homeless? We met them over the past couple of days. We know that there are going to be people who cannot return to their homes. They don’t have insurance. They don’t have the resources and they’re essentially left to fend for themselves on the street."
Patronis: "So I’m sure there will be a multifaceted approach to it. You know, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Mississippi, we became a bedroom community for all those new evacuees. And eventually some stayed and took root and some moved back. You’ll see people get away to be with family and friends. You know the irony of it, the west end of Bay County is basically left unscathed, I mean there’s water problems, there’s cable problems, communication problems, but there is electricity. So there’s good infrastructure there."