Hurricane Michael brings fear, heartache to rival high schools in Florida Panhandle

Yahoo Sports

He stood up in front of his high school football team on Monday and asked everyone to leave town. He called off Tuesday practice to underscore the point.

“I begged the kids,” said Beau Johnson. “If you can’t get out, get to a shelter.”

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Johnson got out, evacuating to Northern Georgia. Many of his varsity players on the Blountstown High School (Fla.) football team did not. On Thursday morning, after one of the most intense hurricanes in American history brought untold damage to his Panhandle town, the coach was helpless to do anything.

Hurricane Michael leveled Mexico Beach, a town located in the Florida Panhandle. (AP)
Hurricane Michael leveled Mexico Beach, a town located in the Florida Panhandle. (AP)

“I tried to make sure the kids knew to go to shelters,” Johnson said, his voice cracking. “We tried to take care of everybody.”

As of Thursday morning, it was impossible for Johnson to figure out how all of his players were doing. A lot of the cell service was down. He saw a photo of his football bleachers crumpled like an old tin can. The lights above the field had been blown off.

“The town is in such bad shape,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll let us back in.”

Hurricane’s terrible impact

Hurricane Michael hit the Gulf Coast on Wednesday with 155 mph winds – 2 mph shy of a Category 5. There were official warnings to leave ahead of the storm, but evacuating can be harder for people without the means.

“I don’t like to use the word poor,” Johnson said. “We don’t have many that are unemployed. A hard-working, blue-collar town. Nobody has a lot of money.”

Blountstown’s rival school is Port St. Joe High, which is located 50 miles south and on the coast, where the storm brought even more destruction. The two schools – with one loss between them in 13 games – were scheduled to play next week. Josh Dailey, the principal of Port St. Joe, estimates that 40 percent of the 500 kids in his 7th-12th grade school live in Mexico Beach, which is roughly 10 miles away and suffered catastrophic damage. Many families that couldn’t evacuate inland from those beach towns went to the high school. They are still there.

Dailey said his school is being used for triage because the area hospitals are without power. The school buses, he said, were used to help move people in nursing homes.

“When you have elderly families, it’s not easy getting up and leaving,” he said. “It’s tough for them. Some families don’t have the funds or the means.”

Dailey said the Port St. Joe elementary school is a Title I school, which means 40 percent or more of the students come from low-income families.

He said he has not had any communications from anyone at the school since 3 p.m. Wednesday. He is left to worry and hope.

“I’m praying we don’t have a lot of casualties,” he said, “but they’re doing search and rescue.”

Pam Heckstall surveys the damage as the remnants of Hurricane Michael move through Panama City. (AP)
Pam Heckstall surveys the damage as the remnants of Hurricane Michael move through Panama City. (AP)

Football’s strong communal bind in Panhandle area

Part of the nightmare of this cataclysm was the speed at which it gathered force. As recently as last weekend, it was only a tropical storm. Even as it grew and strengthened, it appeared to be a Category 2 hurricane at most. But unlike nearly all other hurricanes, it did not weaken as it drew close to shore. It became even more powerful.

“Something’s always happened to make it fizzle out,” Johnson said. “This one was everything they feared, and more.”

He said there were recordings of 130 mph winds in Blountstown, which is an astounding measurement for an inland town.

“We were right on the eastern wall of the eye,” he says. “It’s just bad.”

Johnson used to live in Mexico Beach. He moved to Blountstown because he loved everything about it.

“It’s like Mayberry, I’ll be honest,” he says. “All the men meet at the diner to drink coffee and talk about ’ball all day. One of those kinda towns. You drop your kids off at a football game and everybody makes sure nothing will happen to them.”

Between the two high schools, there are fewer than 1,000 kids. Still somehow there is sports dominance. Port St. Joe has won 27 state titles at the lowest Florida class level. NFL free agent Calvin Pryor, recently of the Cleveland Browns, went to school there. This year’s football team, which Dailey coached last year, looked ready to win another championship.

Now, it’s impossible to know if there will be any more football – or even school – for a while.

“I think at some point this year we are going to need to play to help heal the community,” Johnson said.

When asked if he had any idea where a game could be played at this point, he paused and said, “I don’t.”

As of Thursday afternoon, he didn’t even know if he still had a house.

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