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When a hurricane hits a home that disappeared long ago

In Hurricane Michael's wake, a remembrance of a home that disappeared a long time ago

Destroyed boats are seen at the City Marina in Panama City, Fla., the day after Hurricane Michael landed in the Florida Panhandle, on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.
Destroyed boats are seen at the City Marina in Panama City, Fla., the day after Hurricane Michael landed in the Florida Panhandle, on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018.Read morePedro Portal / Miami Herald

For as long as I can remember, people in Panama City, Fla., thought that somehow, we'd made a special deal with God. We'd never been hit hard by a hurricane. At least, not since folks started keeping records in 1851.

Every time the Gulf of Mexico sent the big hurricanes up our way —  there was Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969 — the storms turned west toward Louisiana and Mississippi.

And then after Andrew hit Miami in 1992, more hurricanes began pounding the panhandle. There were Erin and Opal, both in 1995. But each walloped beach communities farther west, like Fort Walton Beach or Pensacola, which saw the worst of Mother Nature's fury.

This time, Michael came roaring with a vengeance.

Photos showed storm clouds rolling in, thick, dark, and low to the ground. The hurricane scored a direct hit on Mexico Beach, 24 miles east of Panama City.  Michael flattened the little gulfside community, and then ripped apart buildings, schools, houses, and boats that rested at Panama City's downtown marina.

For me, this storm that has killed at least 34 people hit home.

One of the first images seen on television after Michael landed as a Category 4 hurricane was that of a middle-school gymnasium, its walls laid open for all to see, its roof ripped away, exposing the orange basketball painted in the gym floor's center.

It wasn't until a few days later that I realized this was Jinks, my old junior high school.

With much of the media focus on nearby Mexico Beach, it was hard to get a sense of how badly my hometown had been hit. Panama City sits near the Gulf Coast between Pensacola and Tallahassee. It's a community known for its small-town culture, not to be confused with Panama City Beach, famous for its Spring Break crowds. Some natives proudly call it the "Redneck Riviera."

Watching the TV reports made me think of the late 1960s, when my friends and I were among the first group of black students to desegregate the all-white middle school.

What was strange to me, even as a 12-year-old entering seventh grade, was that there was none of the violence and hatred we had seen on television when black children integrated white schools in other parts of the South. I had a sense, even then, that the nearness of the Gulf of Mexico beaches was part of our laid-back transition to integration. Racial animus wouldn't have looked good for a tourist town's image. And this was about 10 years after Little Rock. Times were changing. We embarked on integration in stride.

I was part of a trio of best friends who had been Girl Scouts in our all-black elementary school. So, naturally we signed up to join the troop at our new formerly white school. I only realized years later how shocking it must have been to the white troop leader's neighbors when five white girls and three black girls gathered at her house for meetings and lessons on how to cook for a forthcoming camping trip.  Neighborhoods were still mostly segregated then.

For years, I have been witness to other communities' disasters, the floods and earthquakes, tsunamis and wild fires in far-off places.

Now it was our turn to worry about old schoolmates who had returned home after years of working elsewhere.

The night after Michael landed, I learned that the house I grew up in was still standing. But behind our house rose towering pines, the biggest a couple hundred feet tall. One lay across the driveway, a fallen sentry blocking the path to my door. Two smacked down onto our roof.

It was the way information dribbled in that was confounding. Three days after the storm, I found out that Ms. Dicey, one of my late mother's best friends, had lost her home. My sister-in-law told me by text.

Ms. Dicey and my mother had been part of a group of women who traveled together after becoming widows in their late 60s. They drove to school and family reunions in Alabama and central Florida. They took an occasional cruise or a bus trip to New Orleans. They called themselves the Golden Girls.

But these were black Southern women who had grown up during the Depression, some of them on farms. They knew how to fix a tractor, fish for dinner, and handle guns.

On one of those fishing trips, the women were in a secluded area when a man approached with a lewd suggestion.

Ms. Dicey, then nearing 80, pulled her gun. "Do you want some of this?" she asked. He took off.

Six days after the storm, I heard from another former classmate that a row of houses on his block was destroyed.

"I would say at least 20 percent of the houses are gone all over Panama City," my sister texted me. "There's always a house gone and a couple standing sporadically. I did not see any areas where there was total devastation."

The news kept coming in waves — at first good news. Your house is standing. So is a friend's, one block over. Then a day or two later, you learn who lost everything. The enormity of the storm's impact overwhelms.

Boats were left splintered and crushed at the marina where we'd held our high school graduation.

After high school it was a place to leave.

This small Southern town seemed to have little to offer young blacks who went to college. Some of my friends' fathers worked at a nearby paper mill. Another's father was a policeman. My father opened a business selling and repairing shoes. I'd been gone for 20 years before I learned Dad settled in town because he'd trained at Tuskegee to be an airplane technician.

Often, an older generation of women worked either as maids for white families or in the beachfront hotels. Some owned hair salons. The black teachers and principals and the handful of lawyers were considered the black elite.

We always made it back home for Christmas or summer breaks.

Now the town we grew up in is lost. Truthfully, it had already changed a lot.  Many of the black-owned businesses that stretched along Cove Boulevard in the 1960s and '70s have been demolished to make way for a project that doubled the width of the two-lane Cove Boulevard, now called Martin Luther King Blvd.

I remember sitting in the front of the shoe shop my parents owned, and looking at Life and Look magazines. We also got Ebony, Jet, and the Pittsburgh Courier to read about the civil rights movement.

I remember the older women who walked from shotgun homes to stores or doctor's offices across town. They'd stop along the way and buy a cold drink from the Coca-Cola machine in our store and sit for a while. I remember one woman saying: "I just wanted to rest awhile and enjoy this air-conditioning."

All that is gone, too.