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At The Eye Of The Storm

As Hurricane Michael grew in its intensity and the apparent path became more defined, little doubt remained that our Panama City office would take a direct hit. Located on Harrison Avenue in downtown Panama City, the office was opened in 2014 and has grown to become an integral part of our presence in the area. While we knew that the storm would bring high winds and lots of rain, no one had any idea of the sheer devastation soon to be wrought on the area.

(Above: A view of Harrison Avenue before and after Hurricane Michael)

Associate Principal and office manager Owen Gipson and his staff began preparations early by shutting down and wrapping the computers, printers, plotters and every other electrical item in polypropylene, securing the mounds of paperwork an architectural office creates and doing whatever else they could to ready for the unknown. Once it was apparent just how significant the storm would be, as the last step, staff ensured that electronic files were backed up to our mainframe system. By 1 p.m. on Tuesday, everything was buttoned down, and our dedicated team left to take care of their personal lives.

Landfall-time arrived, and we all held our breath as news stations broadcast the strength of massive Michael making its way over the Gulf Coast. The coverage stole more and more hope of normalcy with every minute that passed. Everyone was eager for it to be over and we were even more anxious to check-in with our Panama City teammates whom we knew had ridden out the storm at home.

By Thursday, the storm had passed, and it was time for roll-call. Our Tallahassee team was safe and fully accounted for, but the office was without power, and their limited amount of communication left us unsure of the damage done by downed trees. Our Pensacola office was unscathed and ready to jump into action to help however they could. The Destin studio got lucky, to say the least. Everyone, except those who evacuated, was back in the office on Thursday and by 9 am we were in an office meeting to discuss how each of us could be most useful in the plans for recovery. Founding Principal Charlie Clary used the experience he’s gained from previous storms to guide the agenda. He walked us through a long list of to-do’s like:

Which architects have experience with damage assessments?

How can we split up a phone call list to offer help and make sure all of our clients, engineers, contractors, fellow designers, and other consultants are safe?

Who has a chainsaw and other tools that might be helpful for some hands-on clean-up?

And the most important: Who has been able to reach anyone from our Panama City Studio?

Owen, Jim, Michael, Patrick, Joe, and Juan were all out there in the rubble, somewhere, and none of us could reach them on the phone to confirm their safety. Hours went by and one-by-one our beloved DAG’ers contacted us. Juan, Joe, and Michael were ok. Patrick emailed in after them with images of his home entrapped by horizontal trees. Jim finally got enough cell service to check-in and let us know that all but his freshly-painted truck had made it through. The only one left to worry about was Owen.

(Above: Pat Ballasch, Jim Tatum, Levi Wiegand, Charlie Clary, and Jim's smothered truck. Can you believe it still runs?! )

Pictures began to leak out online of downtown Panama City. If you’ve ever met Charlie Clary, you know that he is no one to wait around. He ventured to the office to see first-hand just how devastating the scene might be. After crossing the Hathaway Bridge on Hwy. 98, Charlie says it was like night and day. Roofs ripped away, bricks strewn across roads, downed power lines and partially destroyed buildings presented the possibility that our office might not be there any longer. However, to his surprise, the building was still standing. A large window had been knocked out, letting the 155 mph winds churn inside the office. Virtually everything was soaked, and broken glass and office supplies covered the space. But the building that had hovered over the city's main street for so many years was still there. Now we just had to find Owen.

Charlie tried to make his way through town to the obvious spots Owen might be like his house, helping neighbors, or at consultant’s offices, but our Waldo was nowhere to be found and because of the strict curfew, Charlie was forced to turn around and head back to Destin before being able to call the mission a success.

The next day, Friday, Charlie had recruited a team to head back down highway 98 with him to deliver supplies, further assess the condition of the office, and track down Owen. Principal Pat Ballasch, his son and former DAG employee Noah Ballasch, and designer Levi Wiegand accompanied Charlie as they brought water and gas to Jim, squished through the wet carpet of the office to get a better understanding of the damage, drove by current and past projects to see how they fared and tried to offer help to others they knew could use it around town. As they made their way from one stop to the next, all the while worrying about the whereabouts of Owen and wondering where to look next, fate intervened! The three were shocked as they saw Owen riding down the opposite side of the same road they were traveling down! Owen recognized Charlie’s vehicle, and the two stopped immediately. Moments later, the feeling of relief was almost tangible as the company-wide email was sent out containing a picture of the three self-proclaimed “search-and-rescuers” with their arms around Owen’s neck.

(Above: Charlie Clary, Owen Gipson, Pat Ballasch, and Levi Wiegand snap a photo to let the DAG family know we're complete.)

It was apparent that our Panama City team would have to acquire office space outside the damaged area. Time to divide and conquer. Charlie focused on the physical requirements necessary to get back up and running and Owen began the arduous task of checking the operability of equipment, working with our IT department to secure access to servers, and determining what assets would be needed to be fully functional in just a few days. Turning to our client, the St. Joe Company, Charlie was able to negotiate office space in Panama City Beach quickly. He knew we got lucky as three other companies were vying for the same space. It’s worth noting that in a span of fewer than five miles from the Harrison Avenue office, there had been minimal storm damage. Calling a favor from a friend who owned a moving company in Ft. Walton, Charlie developed a strategy to move as much of the equipment and furniture as possible.

Time passed, and although they were without power and surrounded by devastation, employees were able to come out from the destruction their personal property suffered. Everything was in place to make a move. For those who remember the hit TV show, MASH, it was something akin to those times when the soldiers were ordered to “bug out”; slang for "move and move quickly!" Everyone pitched in and in just two days the DAG office in Panama City was back online responding to clients’ needs as a result of the storm, as well as taking care of general business.

We think of the firm as one big family. It’s always been that way. Times like these remind us to be thankful that, as far as Hurricane Michael is concerned, all of us survived to live another day. We are counting our blessings and continuing to do what we can to support the recovery of the community. No doubt everyone has their own story to tell but central to any account will be a reference to “neighbors helping neighbors.” This is a tribute to all of you. We can replace computers, furniture and yes, even office buildings. What we cannot replace is you!

Written by Ashleigh Voisin and Pratt Farmer

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