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Hurricane Michael: A Test of Resilience for Northern Florida

By * Zainab Merchant, For , On 15 January 2019, Read Original
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Panama City, Fla (1/15/18)— Residents had expected power outages, boarded their windows, stacked sandbags around their homes, and went to sleep on Tuesday, Oct. 9, believing that the downpour that was about to hit was a Category 3 storm with mild winds and heavy rain.

What they did not know was that while they slumbered, the storm was quietly transforming into a high-end Category 4 monster with sustained winds of 155 mph, making it the strongest storm since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

But more than that, they did not realize that wind alone was capable of such grave devastation. They would awaken to see the storm had bombarded their quiet town, obliterating their homes and the dreams they had built with them.


When Osman Zafar walked around town after the storm passed, he described it as a warzone.


“It looked as though the sturdiest of buildings were razed to the ground and those left standing were left exposed and roofless,” says Zafar. “The only thing missing in this nightmarish scene was bodies lying around.”


Though dead bodies may not have been in plain sight, Hurricane Michael claimed more than 35 lives, upending the entire city and setting financially struggling families back ten years with barely a roof over their heads.

Serious bags hang under his eyes, almost as though they’ve absorbed the entirety of the city’s troubles in them. This is why Zafar has decided to take a break from the mounting problems in Panama City and is staying with a friend four hours away, in Gainesville, Florida.

“It’s difficult to assess everything when you’re in the midst of it all, because you’re constantly working, trying to fix, and end up fatigued” he says, wearily. “It has helped that I’m able to come here and recuperate, which I’m privileged to be able to do.”

Despite the condition of his home— leaky ceilings, cracked windows, smashed fences, and fallen trees— he seems to be in good spirits. He believes he has it easier than others.

“To be honest, it hasn’t been that bad for us, alhamdulillah,” he says, thanking God. “We lost power and sure, we have a lot of damages, but driving around the city, it was heartbreaking to see people living in uninhabitable homes. They’ve lost everything, and the first few weeks, it’s been just pure survival.” 

Zafar, principal of an Islamic private school, is both inundated with his own affairs and those of the school he runs, which, from a contractor’s last quote, is $300,000 deep in damages. Though the school is under a non-profit trust, it was established by the local Muslim community in 1995, which has given Zafar the responsibility of steering it forward. Private fundraisers, one generously headed by CAIR Fla's Executive Director Hassan Shibly, have assisted with a third of the cost, but he still needs to come up with the rest, and soon.

“The school gym and main buildings both need a roof which is over 100 grand in costs,” says Zafar. “The other damages like water removal, air purification, dehumidification, ac repair, insulation, ceilings, security cameras, tree removal etc are all turning out to be very costly, over 170 grand to be specific.”

Getting the school back up and running is paramount, he says, because children need the semblance of normalcy to be able to move forward from this trauma.

Elma Ahmad, who has two children in this school, agrees.

“The past few weeks have been filled with uncertainty, not knowing what’s going on, and what will happen in the future, and it’s causing anxiety in the children,” she says. “As parents, we have so much to do and we are busy with repairs of our homes, because so many of us are in the same situation, and children are being kind of forgotten, and with no school it’s really making them feel out of sorts.”

Stressing that because school provides a schedule, since many children are in temporary housing situations and shelters, Ahmad feels it will help children cope with their losses. “Their entire world changed in a matter of three hours,” she adds. “Their whole world is completely upside down.”

Though Zafar is prioritizing the school’s opening, he has also been contributing to the restoration of the entire city, which he describes under any other circumstances as a little piece of heaven. With sandy beaches stretching miles on its coastline, Panama City is home to a sizeable population of 106,000 people, with about 1,000 Muslims who have been settling in the Panama City Metro area since the 1980s. “Panama City has everything you need, from a movie theater, to a Home Depot, Laundromats and multiple banks,” he says. “But it has still beautifully maintained its small town charm.”

Now, debris blankets its sandy beauty, and shards of glass and splintered wood are strewn throughout, exactly where the sun once kissed the town.



It’s been more than three weeks since the storm hit, but for some, help hasn’t arrived.

This is why Zafar had called the first week after the storm “survival week”: a real life episode of Lost where residents were thrust into pitch black darkness, a tangle of tree carcasses and pieces of their broken homes.

Rana Al-Nahhas is a Panama City native and a member of the same Muslim community as Zafar. She recently set up a LaunchGood campaign for Montreal Grill, a restaurant that, after the hurricane hit, served hungry bellies for days until it caught on fire. The generator that kept it running was brought inside the restaurant out of fear of it being stolen, when the heat from it and the gas stove combusted into flames.

“I had no ties to the restaurant, but the sheer generosity of the owners –and seeing how they were going out of their way to make sure everybody had a smile on their face before they left— really impacted me,” says Al-Nahhas.

Having been born and raised in Panama City, Al-Nahaas knows Panama City like the back of her hand. “Or at least knew,” she clarifies. “The whole city looks ransacked. Nothing is as it used to be anymore.”

Around the city, many homes now don hand-made plywood signs that read “You Loot, We Shoot”.

“It’s Martial Law around here, everyone is armed and it’s terrifying,” she says.

Once power returned to Al-Nahhas’s neighborhood nine days after the hurricane, a looter managed to enter into her neighbor’s home looking for goods to steal. The neighbor responded with shots fired, but the looter managed to get away.

“There’s two sides to all this,” she says. “The depressing one is that people are stealing because they’ve lost everything and have nothing else to lose, and opportunism which is making people want to maximize off of others suffering.”

Fatigued and worked to the bone, she feels as though, more than money, food and shelter, the city needs manpower to help clean up and fix the damages.

When her friends from nearby cities visited her to help, residents were shocked at their kindness. They helped tear down neighbors’ ceilings that were dangerously hanging down and cleaned up exploded insulation particles that are toxic when inhaled.

 “My friends didn’t feel like they did much,” says Al- Nahhas. “But it’s nice to know that we haven’t been completely forgotten.”


Onais Tariq’s home is one of the many thousands that have been crushed, and what was supposed to be time off for him to care for his elderly parents while on gap year from medical school has now turned into a full time clean-up effort that will likely stretch beyond his time off.

“I’ll never forget what they said to me the day after the hurricane,” reminisces Tariq. “They said, son, thank God you are here to care for us. We don’t know what we would have done.”

After sending his parents to Ohio to keep them away from the danger and health hazards facing the entire city after the hurricane, Tariq set out to work on his home.

Having dabbled in construction his whole life, he has acquired the necessary skill-set to put his parents’ house back together and save money, especially since contractors are price-gauging due to the demand.

Every bit saved is helpful, especially since their home, like many others, was not insured.

“My parents never had any reason to worry because nothing ever happens here,” says Tariq. “In hindsight though, we wish we had the insurance to help with costs because this home is $100,000 deep in damages, and FEMA is only covering around 10 percent of it.”

The rest, he will need to manage on his own.

“I am genuinely humbled,” he says. “I sleep somewhere else every day, sometimes at friends’ homes,” he says, and mentions Zafar. “But sometimes I sleep in my car. Last week is the first time I took a shower and ate a hot meal. But I’m really grateful.”

Taking it day by day, he expresses great pride in the Muslim community, which has come together to help the entire city. “Islamic Circle of North American Relief was the first one on-ground helping people here, helping the whole town with food and water and diapers and even cash,” he says. “And when you know you’re not alone, it helps you keep going.”


Somewhat rested after severe post hurricane burn out, Osman Zafar is ready to go back to where duty awaits.

He’s been on the phone with his insurance adjustor for an entire day, getting his home affairs in order. Still, he is glad he is able to use his phone, realizing that just over two weeks ago, his cell phone had no service, and when it finally did, the battery had died.

“You would not believe how much we really take for granted. Imagine, no phone, no radio, no TV, which basically means no information. You just have each other amidst the chaos,” he says.

Zafar feels the local and state authorities managed as best as they could, given the circumstances, but entities such as FEMA could have performed better.

“There were pregnant women and children who were literally sleeping outside their destroyed homes, totally unsafe, dazed, as if they had seen a war,” says Zafar. “I don’t know how they went through the week and survived because FEMA didn’t get there for after a week and half.”

Ultimately though, he is thankful the city is looking forward and focusing on rebuilding and coming out even stronger than before. And most of all, he is grateful for good Samaritans who have been coming from nearby cities and lending a helping hand with trucks overflowing with food, tarps and care supplies for the city’s most vulnerable. 

“Natural disasters have a way of humbling mankind,” Zafar says. “We realize that no matter how powerful we are and what kind of army we may have, nature can still overpower us and render us helpless.”

As he begins coordinating his efforts for the school he needs to re-open, the families who are homeless, and the victims who are unable to fill out necessary paperwork due to language barriers, he thanks God once more for giving him the opportunity to serve others.

“With privilege comes responsibility, so we all must do our part,” he says, smiling assuredly.

Panama City’s warzone has begun to look hopeful once again. 

About writer: Zainab Merchant is an author, journalist and graduate student at Harvard University studying International Security and Journalism. Her published works have been featured in The Washington Post and several independent media outlets. She is also founder of digital media start-up Chipakly that seeks to raise awareness for global injustices through creative animation. She hopes that with more balanced coverage, especially when it comes to the Muslim community, we can collectively work towards a word that is free of misconceptions and stereotypes. 

**To help struggling families rebuild their homes, visit https://bit.ly/2Px19g4  a local effort by Osman Zafar, Onais Tariq and Rana Al-Nahhas