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Florida Coast Guard station's recovery from Hurricane Michael is at least five years away

By ED OFFLEY | The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. | Published: February 28, 2019

COAST GUARD STATION PANAMA CITY, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Although this compact, 86-year-old facility was able to resume essential operations within 24 hours of Hurricane Michael's landfall, the installation and its small staff of 100 Coast Guardsmen and women still face a long-term struggle to fully recover from the storm.

Tucked into the eastern end of Naval Support Activity Panama City on Thomas Drive, the station suffered catastrophic damage from the high winds and heavy rain that lashed eastern Bay County, said Boatswain's Mate Master Chief Anthony Kannan, officer-in-charge of the small base.

A native of Morehead City, North Carolina, Kannan said he is no stranger to Atlantic hurricanes, having lived close to the Outer Banks before launching his 26-year Coast Guard career.

"I've been doing hurricanes all my life," Kannan said, "but I have never seen one like this one."

With the storm nearing landfall on the Panhandle on Oct. 8, Kannan ordered his personnel and their families to evacuate Bay County, with most driving to a designated "safe haven" near Montgomery, Alabama. Kannan rode out the storm at the county Emergency Operations Center. The next day he and a handful of staff returned to the station to find it all but flattened.

"The only building that survived was the station building," Kannan said of the two-story administrative headquarters.

Even that hardened structure sustained roof damage and serious flooding from the rain. Other buildings, storage sheds and other structures fared much worse, he said.

In a press briefing on Oct. 29, Kannan said preliminary inspections had found that 50 percent of the structures had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

Four months later, that number has risen to 80 percent of the station.

"Boy, was I wrong," he said.

Several buildings that appeared structurally sound had sustained serious water damage and mold, to the point that engineers determined it more efficient and less costly to demolish and rebuild.

A walking tour of the station with a reporter and photographer turned into a grand tour of bare concrete slabs. A one-story building that used to house tenant units that handled aids to navigation, marine safety inspections and other tasks appeared intact, but the inside revealed a total loss from a peeled-back roof and resulting mold. A storage unit where the crews of the station's two cutters, Kingfisher and Marlin, kept their supplies was full of shipboard equipment, electronics, body armor and foul-weather jackets — all ruined by water and mold. Kannen pulled open a tool box to show socket wrenches and screwdrivers already brown with rust.

"That open space over there," Kannan said, pointing to an empty ground, "used to be a gazebo."

Engineers have estimated it will cost tens of millions to replace the destroyed buildings and lost equipment at the Coast Guard station. While a tiny fraction of the anticipated $3 billion cost to rebuild Tyndall Air Force Base, Kannan said the Coast Guard does not have the reserve funding resources that the larger military services enjoy. The effort to effect planning, secure appropriations in Congress and begin construction won't happen anytime soon, he said.

"You won't see anything here for the next five to eight years ... before we see any construction," he said.

While Kannan and his people have had to struggle with the mostly destroyed buildings and the patchwork repairs carried out to date, the master chief said everyone is proud that they were able to resume their essential operations within a day of the storm's landfall.

"When we came back the first thing was to restore our rescue capability," he said.

That meant re-establishing communications, bringing back the station's 45-foot fast response boats, and ensuring fuel and water supplies.

"Michael was on a Wednesday," he said. By lunchtime that Thursday, less than 24 hours after evacuating, Kannan and his people had restored the station's search-and-rescue capability.

"I had all of my small boats back and communications restored," he added.

Because of its important location and having one of the larger patrol areas on the Gulf Coast, running from Lake Powell to the mouth of the St. Marks River in Wakulla County, Kannan said the station's future remains "really bright."

©2019 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)
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