PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Ole Miss alumni are struggling with how to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael nearly two weeks after the hurricane first made landfall.
The category 4 hurricane, which first made landfall on Oct. 10, is the fourth strongest storm to ever make landfall on the continental U.S. and the strongest to ever hit the Florida Panhandle.
The destruction that Michael caused has left Ole Miss alumnus Jeff Rish scrambling to pick up the pieces.
“I’ve been on a chainsaw for the last nine days,” Rish said. “At some point in the day, I’ve spent several hours on the chainsaw for the last … I’ve lost track of time.”
Rish, who graduated from Ole Miss in the 70s having earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, has lived in Lynn Haven, Florida, a suburb of Panama City, since the 1990s. His one-story brick house only suffered minor damage. Rish; his wife, Patti; and their two dogs, Dutch and Ginger, were without power for more than a week.
“To get air conditioning back, that’s like dying and going to heaven,” Rish said.
Fallen trees litter their front and back yards. Tarps cover roof damage on not only their house, but also their neighbors’ and thousands more. Rish said that the wind was once so loud that he couldn’t hear the tall pine trees in his backyard snapping like twigs. But after seeing the damage, Rish knew rebuilding wasn’t going to happen overnight.
“We just take things one day at a time,” Rish said. “You literally just do it a day at a time and deal with what you have to deal with.”
Rish said when he realized how strong Michael was going to be, it was too late. Before power was restored, the Rishes had little communication with the outside world.
“It’s something you deal with,” Rish said. “You realize you don’t have communications. You realize you can’t reach first responders. Any situation that arises, you’re going to have to deal with it.”
Peyton LoCicero, a 2016 Ole Miss graduate, is a reporter for WMBB in Panama City, Florida. As a reporter, LoCicero has come to know the city like the back of her hand, but when Michael rolled through, she said the city became unrecognizable.
“When I came over the first day and saw it, I had to pull over because I was crying so bad,” LoCicero said. “I was sobbing. I was so upset because I couldn’t find where I was going and I had interviewed all these people before. I knew the lady that had the little thrift shop. I knew the people who owned the coffee shop that lost everything. Seeing those completely gone and unrecognizable is devastating.”
LoCicero lives in Destin, Florida, and said that her home never lost power and didn’t suffer any damage. LoCicero had been working for 10 straight days, covering all angles of the storm, before receiving a day off.
But on top of the physical destruction, Michael has taken a mental toll on residents. Through her reporting, LoCicero sees a way to help people get back on their feet.
“It’s our job and our duty to report,” Locicero said. “It’s powerful knowing that I’m reaching so many people and getting them the positive information that they need to keep going.”
Despite how the damage looks on the ground and on TV, residents like Rish believe it could have been much worse.
“All I can say is that we were blessed and extremely fortunate,” Rish said. “There were many, many others that aren’t.”
Donations to help Hurricane Michael victims can be made at the Lafayette Middle School Student Council’s hurricane drive and the Oxford Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce drive. Both are collecting food and water, pet items, children’s items and building materials. Donations will be accepted through Oct. 25.