My love letter to Panama City Florida

December 6, 2018

My love letter to Panama City Florida

57 days after Hurricane Michael


That is the number of years that it will take for my beloved home ocean to return to normalcy…at least that is what I heard when I was there last week. Hopefully, it will take less time. My information is based on what I have heard and/or read, so if my information is inaccurate, I mean no ill will or harm.

My hope for Bay County is that she comes back stronger and more successful than ever before.

Here’s my personal story and why I am writing this love letter:

Born in Virginia, I was raised in a big city and a small town – both were very different from each other. Even as a child, I didn’t like either place. These areas were too busy or too rural and both too cold for my personal comfort level. Warm weather is a good reason to move to Florida.

My Aunt and Uncle had discovered the touristy beach town of Panama City Florida in the 1970’s and made it their home.. My Aunt still lives there and my Uncle lived there until his death last year. He had a thriving auto repair service in Lynn Haven for many years. His ads in the paper talked about how his pricing was based on how much makeup his wife bought!

When I first came to Panama City in the 1970’s (yes, I am old), it was in February. Although the locals thought that it was too chilly to go to the beach, I felt like I was in paradise. Bright sunshine, warm breezes, palm trees, the smell of salt in the air and the Gulf of Mexico. I brought shorts, t-shirts and a swimsuit. Locals knew right away that this was my first visit to town based on my outfit. I first learned about the classic Floridian winter attire: Shorts, flip-flops with two straps instead of just one and a sweatshirt/hoodie.

I fell completely and utterly in love with Panama City. I also became a Florida State University Seminole fan.

Please keep on reading, even if you are a Gator…

We played mini golf on the beach, went shopping at the mall and picked up Big Sam’s chicken (now called Popeye’s) for our dinner on the first night of our visit. I discovered and fell in love with my most favorite food on the planet: OYSTERS. These are just a few of the traditions that were carried on until I made the permanent move to Panama City in 1986. Shortly after I moved to the Southport neighborhood, the space shuttle exploded. I found it odd that I had just moved to get away from the cold and cold weather was responsible for the seals failing on the shuttle…Florida and the nation were heartbroken that day.

As the years of my living in Bay County increased, my living in Virginia became a distant memory. During the following years, more of my family members relocated to Bay County, all so happy to be away from the cold weather and near the World’s Mosr Beautiful Beach!

In my 20’s (remember, I am old), I was the girl that kept the following items in the trunk of my car at all times: a bikini, beach towels, Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil, sunglasses, FSU ball cap, battery operated radio, one of those tri-folding beach chairs that clicked backwards to move forwards and a cooler with beer koozies, of course.

I remember when the Florida lottery started up. I remember the bumper stickers “I’ll buckle up when Ted Bundy does”…in reference to the newly passed seat belts laws, the serial killer and “Sparky”, the electric chair used for the death penalty. I remember “travelers’ from when I worked on the Anderson Dinner Cruise Boat at Grand Lagoon. Jack Daniels and Coke…don’t worry, I waited until I got home to imbibe….okay…almost home, but it was the 80’s…we’ve all done it! I remember getting Pina Colada sodas from the Junior stores that were on EVERY corner, grocery shopping at Winn-Dixie, Albertsons and Delchamps.

I remember going to lunch with my work buddies from the banks that I worked in over the years: Jade East, Po Folks, The Cheesebarn, Hunt’s Oyster Bar, The Place on Grace, Harbor House for their seafood casserole, Pizza Hut, House of Seafood, Lyndavon’s: AUCE Mullet, House of Chan and my favorite place for seafood: Penny’s Seafood in Southport!

I waited tables on the beach for 7 years at the Golden Anchor, Mariner and the Fore and Aft. I remember going out to Chan’s, Black Angus, Spinnaker and LaVela and the Breakers to watch the band Clutch perform songs which are now classified as “yacht rock”…18 to enter, 21 to drink – LOL! After shift and after nights out dancing, meals at Coram’s Steak and Egg, or the Waffle House were always delicious. Going to bonfires on the beach until the cops would come along and make us put out the flames. Watching sunburned tourists walk around in pain and seeing people in bathing suits with toilet seat impressions because they didn’t hover!

Last week, I drove around the area to see the damage. I was not prepared at all for what I saw…

Shooketh, or biblically shook is a humorous term that I use…but this was not a funny time.

Most of the restaurants are still closed because they are heavily damaged or completely destroyed. So many cooks and wait staff folks are out of a job. Waitress/waiters in Panama City make good money. I know because I made good tips years ago.

Most of the Panama City Mall is closed. My memories of Gayfers, Casual Corner, Petite Sophisticate, Lerners, 5-7-9, Buddy Harris shoes, Orange Julius, Claire’s, Hickory Farms during Christmas time, Spencer’s Gifts and Wicker Picker are all that remain. Going to the movies and watching the “late night freak show” when the punks wearing all black clothing, spiked hair and latch pins in their noses would walk around the food court on Friday nights.

The Panama City Mall is closing. 500 retail workers are out of a job because their place of employment is heavily damaged or completely destroyed. Not sure what they will do with that property or the Dillard’s that is actually open.

Bay Medical is partially closing. So many medical professionals are out of a job because their place of employment is heavily damaged or completely destroyed. My family is filled with nurses. Three generations of family means someone has been in Bay Medical hospital as a patient or was born there over the decades.

Tyndall Air Force Base is partially open. It will be a while before full operations return, so I’ve been told. If you watched Fox News and Shepard Smith report on the hurrican, then you saw Shep describe the concrete block buildings at TAFB and the surrounding business on Tyndall Parkway. Shep used to be a reporter in Panama City back in the day. His personal experience of living there really described what was happening in Bay County during the storm. The eye of the hurricane went right over TAFB.

Watching hurricane coverage on television is one thing, seeing the aftermath that remains almost 2 months after the storm is surreal…like something that you would see in a movie.

Banks and drug stores are closed or operating out of tents because they are heavily damaged or completely destroyed. My uncle’s old auto repair shop is destroyed as well.

So many people have lost their homes, have damaged vehicles and now lost their jobs. So many people did not have insurance to cover the damages to their homes, property and vehicles. And no job means no income to help with expensive repairs. Some people are getting help from FEMA and Dsnap, but they need more than money, they need physical help.

I moved away from Panama City in the late 90’s when I got married. I come back to town often since my family still lives there and I own rental properties there. I came to Panama City last week to start the repair processes on my houses in Bayou George and Callaway.

My family members experienced various levels of damage from the storm: minor damage and lots of trees down to complete destruction of their homes. One cousin drives around with a saran wrap windshield because the storm. Many do not have land line phone service or internet, which is a must in the 21st century.

Long time friends of my family have moved out of Bay County because their home was destroyed or their place of employment was destroyed, moving because they don’t have places available for them to live or work. There are tent cities around the Bay County area because people have no money to even leave the area. And it was freezing temperatures at night when I was there last week. My uncle was in Bay Medical as a patient and was evacuated to a hospital in Crestview Florida, 90 miles away. His nursing home in Panama City was destroyed and will be staying in the Crestview area for a long time. His home in Lynn Haven was completely destroyed and a land developer has already offered him cash to purchase his home, level it and build a new house on the lot.

Everything, and I mean everything has been affected by the hurricane. Roads, signs, buildings, streets, businesses, docks…I got lost a couple of times because I couldn’t tell where I was on 23rd street – most of the “landmarks” are unrecognizable or have disappeared completely. As I was driving it was hard not to stare – I would see a building and think, “Oh! It looks oka—oh, nope. The roof (or side) would be completely missing. I would look at a building and see that it was no longer “square”, slightly leaning, yet in tact for the most part. Metal roofs were peeled up like a foil yogurt cup lid. “Forever” tile roofs have large sections of tiles that are just gone. I saw so many large diameter trees that had snapped from the storm. I saw live oaks that had completely upended and lifted up entire front yards. The trees that remain standing have no leaves, are leaning like the Tower of Pisa or have died in place. Because of that, you can see houses that you never knew existed and in some areas you now have a water view because homes and trees no longer block your line of sight to the bay. The sound of generators, chain saws and “claw” trucks (debris removal) fill the air. I went around with my mouth open, repeating the words “this is crazy”, over and over again. I tried to describe the widespread damage to my ex-pat friends from Panama City… all I could come up with is:”there are no words”.

It doesn’t look or sound like the holiday season in Bay County.

There wasn’t the Black Friday shopping madness that occurs starting on Thanksgiving day. No 4:00am “hot now” Krispy Kreme donut break from shopping because Krispy Kreme is closed. No Hardee’s biscuit for breakfast because it was also closed. No one has Christmas lights on their homes. There are no Christmas decorations on the street lights. In some areas there aren’t any street lights standing or the ones that are standing are not working. No piped Christmas music as you enter stores to shop. Lynn Haven had their Christmas tree up, which was heartwarming to see.

Driving over power lines is scary at first, but then you realize that they are still laying around everywhere and are not live, so you drive over them anyway. Driving down the main roads and through neighborhoods you see piles and piles of various types: trees/branches, appliances/vehicles, metal items, furniture, black garbage bags and housing materials. Lots of homes now have campers parked in front of them. People are living in these while they wait for their homes to be fixed. So many homes have been declared unsafe to inhabit due to mold or catastrophic damage. Bay County residents have to sort the items so that the county (or feds) will come pick it up and take it to recycling stations or one of the many giant mulch piles located around the county. Traffic, at least in town, has never been bad in comparison to beach holiday traffic. Now, traffic is heavy and filled with trucks with out of state license plates and with the words “roofing/tree removal/mold remediation/drywall/plumbing”…I could go on and on. Of the few places to shop or eat, many are still on a cash only basis with limited menu items and semi filled shelves. Gas pumps are always crowded with work trucks getting filled up for the day. Bay County installed those newer type of traffic light bars years ago. Have you ever seen one of these metal bars twisted and broken? I have. Doesn’t seem possible, much less real. Oh, yes, you have to try to remember to get home before dark. It makes it easier to avoid the debris piles and see which road you need to turn down, since the signs and street lighting are gone. Remember, I told you earlier it’s very easy to be disoriented and not know where you are anymore…

I walked through the Walmart and the Publix when I was in town. Every conversation that I passed was about the hurricane. Specifically, about how the insurance companies were only giving folks a certain amount of money to make repairs, and how that amount wasn’t enough to make repairs because the amounts were based on pre-hurricane pricing. “Pre-hurricane pricing” is a phrase I heard everywhere. Roofers that charged $20.00 per hour are now charging $30.00 per hour. A stack of roofing materials that used to cost $1,000.00, now cost $1,500.00. And good luck in finding an available contractor of any kind to repair your home…get on the wait list is the answer you hear…and hope you have enough insurance money to cover the repairs. One contractor quoted me the price of $3,200.00 to put a blue tarp on my house in Callaway….are you kidding me?

The Army Corp of Engineers put a blue tarp on my home for free. For this gesture of kindness and generosity, I will forever be grateful. Many people probably didn’t even know about his service since internet is very limited and overloaded. Cell phone towers were destroyed. Smaller, temporary towers have been brought in. Service is spotty as all cell phone service carriers are trying to use a handful of cell towers all at once. Remember, lots of people don’t have land line phone service.

Most of the schools are heavily damaged. The kids of Bay County have to attend school in shifts. Some go early in the morning and the others are in school until dinnertime. Various churches that were damaged are sharing their buildings with churches that were destroyed, so you can go to a Baptist service and a Methodist service in the same building.

The people of Bay County are sad and worried about their homes, livelihoods and lives. No one is wearing Christmas shirts, no Santa hats or reindeer antler headbands. Vehicles are dirty, people’s shoes are dirty and the formerly pristine roads, streets and bridges are covered with debris.

And my short visit surely did not reveal all of the damages of Bay County. I am probably missing a lot of topics that should be discussed, or at least brought up for discussion.

I was still living in Panama City in October 1995 when Hurricane Opal hit. The beach took a bigger hit than town. I remember one of my favorite places to go was “U-turn Sunburn Saloon”. It was destroyed during Hurricane Opal. The only thing that remained standing on that property is a sign that read, “No coolers”. It has never been rebuilt. There are many other businesses that never recovered from Opal.

That is my fear for Panama City now. Will businesses rebuild? Will Panama City recover from this catastrophic hurricane? I certainly hope so. I saw the solidarity of the people of Bay County when we were parked on Highway 231 South for many hours, waiting to get back home after Hurricane Opal hit in October 1995. Some of those people parked on the highway are living in Bay County today. And we thought Opal was bad…

I know that lives of kids and young adults today is very different than hanging out in the mall or heading to the beach every Saturday morning. It makes me a little sad to know that their memories will be filled with the devastating hurricane in 2018 that changed the lives and livelihoods of their families and friends, instead of hanging out at the mall on a Friday night or rather texting and Snapchatting their friends on a Friday night.

It is my opinion that many of the fine people of Bay County Florida are still experiencing Hurricane Michael, every day.

Al Rocker of NBC was there last week to give thanks to the many relief workers. I heard that there are some concerts planned. There are relief stations and places to get food, water and temporary wi-fi sprinkled throughout the city. There are insurance companies that have set up temporary locations to help locals with their claims. There are also pop-up clinics to help those with medical needs.

When Katrina hit New Orleans, my father and his friends from church went over to Pass Christian for MONTHS to help. Utility trucks from all over came to get power back on when the storm first hit.

It seems that the outside help has dried up for the most part…I hope that I am wrong, but this is my personal observation, not necessarily fact.

American Red Cross and Salvation Army are there, but can only do so much. Many local religious and civic are handing out supplies from their own damaged buildings. Local people are helping each other with whatever resources they have or they are going to certain locations to hire help for the day. Licensed, bonded and insured contractors aren’t always readily available and some people have been victims of bad businesses taking money and not doing the work.

When I got back home to Virginia (yes, I am back despite my disdain for cold temperatures), I felt compelled to write this op-ed. I wanted to bring attention to a place that you or someone you know has been to on spring break or watched MTV Spring Break back in the day, for flight training at TAFB, attended GCCC college or visited relatives.

For those who personally know me, you know that tears are not something that I usually shed. I had to stop and cry several times while writing this love letter.

Please feel free to share my love letter in hopes of bringing attention to my home ocean…mermaid speak for where my heart resides.

That is, my broken heart.

Pictures to follow.


Tamara Phipps

Former Bay County Resident

Current Bay County Property Owner and Tax Payer

Student of Gulf Coast Community College

Fan of Florida State Seminoles

Mermaid from the Gulf of Mexico

Lover of Bay County Florida…now and forever.