From June through November each year, the threat of a hurricane is a constant fact of life for Florida residents. Families in Panama City, situated on Saint Andrew Bay, just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, are particularly vulnerable.
“Living in Florida, there will be lots of hurricanes and they’re always warning you about them,” explained Sherri Simpson.
“Normally the hurricanes dwindle before reaching the coastline and come in as a Category 1 or 2 tropical storm. Most of the time they’re not as bad as the news makes them out to be.”
So when Hurricane Michael was predicted to hit the Florida panhandle coastline last October, on the heels of Hurricane Florence which devastated the Carolinas just a few weeks earlier, Panama City residents weren’t too worried. “People here have been through so many hurricanes, so honestly, a lot of people don’t prepare. The night before Hurricane Michael hit, the news was saying it was a Category 2, which is not that bad.”
Anytime a storm is imminent, a team of staff members at Bay Medical Sacred Heart Hospital is required to stay overnight at the hospital. “Usually my husband and kids and grandkids don’t come with me to shelter at the hospital, but this time I made them come,” Simpson recalled. “I’ve been through many hurricanes and always felt safe staying at the hospital.” The family also brought their pets, two dogs and a cat, which were housed with other pets in a separate building of the hospital.
By Wednesday morning, October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael had been upgraded to a Category 5, only the second Category 5 storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“By then it was too late to do anything,” Simpson said. “The hospital windows started shattering. The rain was pouring in. Electrical fires were breaking out.”
As soon as it was safe, Simpson ran to rescue her pets from the adjacent building which had been completely destroyed. “When we walked outside it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. There are no words to describe the destruction.”
Despite the massive damage, hospital staff and their families had to remain at the hospital for several days because it wasn’t safe to leave. Simpson worked exhaustively to care for and then evacuate the remaining patients.
When they were finally allowed to leave on Saturday, the Simpsons’ trip home, which usually takes 10 minutes, took four hours because of downed trees and power lines, and flooding across the city. The family discovered their ground-floor apartment had flooded, and because it had been closed up for several days, it was completely covered in mold. All of their belongings were ruined. They slept on the floor of the contaminated apartment that night because they had nowhere else to go.
The next morning the family drove south to Ocala, Florida to stay with Simpson’s dad. The typically five-hour trip took 10 hours. Meanwhile, Simpson was feeling increasingly unwell. In Ocala, Simpson’s husband, Robert, took her to the emergency room where they learned she was having a heart attack. She had been recuperating in the hospital in Ocala for about a week when she received a call from her employer, that she was needed back at work in Panama City.
“Both my husband and I are contract employees,” Simpson explained. Her husband retired from the Navy after serving for 21 years and now works as a Saturation Dive Technician, building hyperbaric dive chambers. “We couldn’t just pick up and move from Panama City – we had to go to work and, without an apartment, we had to live in our truck. Eventually, FEMA came in and gave us money to replace our furniture and clothing, but we were not able to stay in FEMA trailers for more than 60 days and we knew our apartment would not be renovated within such a short time frame. We tried to get a loan to buy a camper but didn’t have enough savings to afford a down payment.”
Although Simpson’s husband had retired from the Navy before they married, both knew about the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. “Robert had used it in the past,” Simpson said. “My dad is a Marine, my son is in the Army, and my daughter had just enlisted in the Air Force. So we knew where we could go for help.”
The Simpsons had already gone through their savings just paying for food and basic expenses after the hurricane. “Every week I would spend $80 at the laundromat,” Simpson said.
The Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society was there for them and provided an interest-free loan so the Simpsons could make the down payment on a 2016 camper. The camper is now home to Robert and Sherri Simpson, one of her daughters who is studying to be a nurse, and one granddaughter. One of Simpson’s daughters stayed in Ocala with Simpson’s father and another daughter and her husband and children moved inland to another city.
“It’s a no-interest loan, and the monthly repayment is taken out of Robert’s Navy retirement pay,” she said. “Shortly after the Society approved our loan, they called me and said they had converted $1000 of our loan to a grant to reduce how much we had to repay. The Society staff members were so nice and helpful. They helped in every way they could. I know they’re here to help military service members and retirees.”
The renovation of their apartment building is expected to be completed this summer, but Simpson thinks they will continue living in the camper. “I will never underestimate a storm ever again. We will stay in the camper in case we need to leave on short notice.
We are so thankful to the Society for helping us buy the camper. If it wasn’t for the Society, we’d have been homeless.”
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso