The Calm After the Storm

One UF Health physician traveled to hurricane-ravaged Panama City with an urban search and rescue team.

By: Tripp Miller

If you have ever experienced a major hurricane, you’re familiar with the eerie quiet that follows. With no electricity, no running water and no cars on the road, the silence is palpable.

That was the scene for one Panama City woman after Hurricane Michael ravaged the Gulf Coast. In the wake of so much destruction, everything was quiet and still — oddly peaceful — until the contractions started.

For a first-time expectant mother, full-term with twins, the silence must have been deafening. The stillness and isolation, terrifying. Between her and the nearest accessible road, there lay almost a mile of downed pine trees. There was no power, no water and no way out.

And then, a distant hum of chainsaws broke the silence. Salvation, in the form of the Florida Task Force 5 Urban Search and Rescue unit, was on the way.

“We cut through a good three-fourths of a mile of downed trees to get to her, to get her out and to the hospital after the storm,” said Carolina Pereira, MD, UF Health Jacksonville disaster medical officer, associate professor of emergency medicine for the University of Florida College of Medicine – Jacksonville, and three-year veteran of Task Force 5 USAR.

The team, consisting of 47 people and two canines, is primarily staffed by Jacksonville Fire and Rescue workers. Pereira, whose training is in emergency medicine with a subspecialty in prehospital care and disaster medicine, serves as medical support for members of the team.

When Michael hit, they were the first group of responders in Panama City. The team had predeployed to Mobile, Alabama, on Oct. 9. The storm made landfall at 1:40 p.m. the next day, and it wasn’t long before the calls started coming in. Multiple nursing facilities had collapsed. All but one area hospital were down.

“We started getting a ton of calls telling us to just get in there,” she said.

Pereira’s group was the first to arrive. The first order of business is always to get the task force’s camp set up, then fan out and begin looking for anyone who needs help. The USAR team works a search grid across the affected area.

“In the first couple of days, we’re helping people who are stuck and can’t get to food or water — the absolute basics,” Pereira said.

Task Force 5 USAR spent 10 days in Panama City after Hurricane Michael. Pereira doesn’t have ready access to statistics on exactly how many victims they were able to help, but the group’s impact can be measured in other ways. The mother who was stranded behind a long stretch of downed trees safely delivered two healthy babies.