LYNN HAVEN, Fla. – When Hurricane Michael was bearing down on the Florida Gulf Coast, local officials in this small town (population 21,000) decided to bring their families to the building housing the police station to ride out the storm.
The police chief, deputy chief, mayor and city manager were all there along with other officers, council members, spouses, kids and pets – a total of 65 to 75 people.
One side of the building, a former church, had a high-peaked roof where the chapel used to be. It was converted to the City Commission chambers, connected to a one-story office building with a flat roof serving as the police department.
Chief Matthew Riemer, born and raised here in Bay County, has been an officer or city employee of Lynn Haven for nearly four decades. “We felt like this building would be safe,” he told Fox News.
Most of the adults were on the office side when things started getting ugly. The kids and pets were in the former chapel, watching cartoons.
As the storm grew in ferocity, it blew out windows and ripped a big air conditioning unit off the roof. Water and wind came rushing in and eventually, the sanctuary’s roof blew off and the block and brick walls caved.
The chief says they were able to hustle everyone into a corner office and hallway before the walls gave way. Some people huddled under tables. He said the sounds were deafening and the situation frightening – and it lasted for hours.
“We had to hold the doors shut. The wind was pulling them open” he told me while standing in the rubble of his former station. “It sounded like a freight train for several hours. Just didn’t stop.”
"Did you think that was it, think you were all gonna die?” I asked him.
He paused and said “I had serious concerns. I’ve never been that scared.” His voice broke a bit. “I had my whole family in there.”
Incredibly, he said, not a single person who took refuge inside the structure, which was functioning as an emergency operations center during the storm, was injured. Everyone, and every pet, was OK.
The chief said even as the storm howled outside, as they watched trees fall and heard their town being ripped apart, he and his fellow officers were plotting strategy, and as soon as things calmed down to the point they felt they could safely head out, they did, using a couple of Polaris ATV’s to reach the town’s heavy equipment so they could start pushing trees off roadways.
The chief searched for a suitable building to use as a temporary command post but couldn’t find one because everything was so torn up. So he just climbed onto one of the big front-end loaders and spent the next eight hours moving trees himself.
Eventually, others showed up to help. He said they cleared 121 miles of roads in three days.
"From the time you got everyone in here (inside the building) before the storm until now, when did you stop?” I asked.
“We haven’t stopped” he told me. “We’re still going. Our department is moving at full speed.”
They now have tents and trailers set up in a park across the street, with mobile command posts driven in by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies. Volunteers are clearing debris and handing out 12,000 meals a day in a parking lot next door.
“Have you been able to process this?” I asked, gesturing toward the crushed walls.
“No. We will. Right now I can’t worry about this” he said. “We gotta make sure the city is secure and the citizens are safe. We want them to know we’re here for them. That’s what we’re doing.”