Forecasts predicted Hurricane Michael would land in Panama City as a strong, but still manageable, Category 3 hurricane. Employees of the Humane Society of Bay County — along with their families, friends, cats, and dogs — spent the day preparing to ride out the hurricane under the protection of their Monolithic Dome. As everyone settled in for the night, no one expected anything too severe. Then Hurricane Michael intensified into the strongest hurricane to ever hit the Florida panhandle.
On Monday, before the storm, the staff prepared the best they could. They had animals out for adoption at a local supermarket. They went and gathered the animals, plus sandbags, and other items to secure the shelter the best they could.
“The shelter was built to hold up to a Category 4,” said Jessica Savageau, general manager. “Everyone was expecting a three, so we just figured we would ride it out here.”
Savageau and the shelter manager, Lauryn Gill, and another staff member, Austin, planned to stay while the other employees evacuated or stayed in their homes. “We invited our family and friends if they didn’t have a safe place to come here,” said Savageau who affectionately refers to all the animals in the shelter as babies. “Our jobs were to stay here with the babies and just make sure they were safe during the storm.”
“Tuesday night the staff and family members that ended up coming along — and our pets — stayed the night in the shelter,” said Gill.
Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday, October 10, 2018. “Wednesday morning, about 7 AM, we checked our phones, and we realized we were right there at a category five,” said Savageau. “I got a little scared I have to tell you. Still, we stayed positive and continued to make sure everything was secured and ready. At 11 AM it started getting really nasty outside.”
The design of the shelter is a single monolithic-like dome with a large, windowed entryway. Two rings of skylights surround the rest of the dome. No one can say who built the dome. It was constructed in the 1970’s. Until this storm, MDI didn’t know it existed. After the South brothers built their first dome in 1976, there were others who licensed it or, um, “borrowed” the process to construct domes. There were still others who built similar, but somewhat different domed structures, too.
Savageau described an outer membrane covering a foam layer with a concrete interior layer. If it isn’t a “true” Monolithic Dome, then it’s close — so we are referring to it as a Monolithic Dome for convenience. If anyone knows more about this structure, we would love to hear from you.
“We had a skylight bust downstairs away from the animals, but our personal pets were there,” said Savageau. “We acted fast. Got a spare dryer and started piling things in a tarp to cover the window.”
An upstairs skylight smashed, sending water downstairs. “We have three rooms of dogs on our adoption side, and it looked like a waterfall coming from where the window had shattered,” she said. “Everyone immediately grabbed a dog and moved them to a dry, safe area.”
They kept the wind and rain out the best they could, moving animals to dry areas, patrolling the dome, and watching the storm through the entryway.
“It felt like the dome was just going to blow away,” Savageau continued. “You could hear things hitting it, hitting the ducts, all of the pipes, everything were just shaking and rattling. It is a sound that I will never forget. For a moment we thought that our front glass was going to blow out because it was shaking and rattling so bad.”
Then around 1 PM, the winds calmed a bit.
Eye of the hurricane
“The winds were still really heavy, but nothing severe,” said Savageau. “We were able to watch it and when the eye came over the winds were going north at first and when the eye came over the winds came back going south. It was pretty interesting to watch the different wind directions.”
“Then it just picked right back up with the winds going in a different direction. The eye had passed right over us. Then I would say about three or three thirty it really started calming down to where we walked outside.”
Over fifty-plus trees fell. One big tree landed on the dome. Savageau said it peeled off some of the outer fabric membrane, exposing and tearing the foam, too.
“We had branches that pierced the building all around,” said Savageau.
It looked like little sticks were stabbed into the dome. Overall the shelter held up well.
On Thursday, a news ABC news crew found them, trapped by debris. The news crew called the National Guard who helped them free their vehicles from the locked, neighboring concrete structure.
“We cannot be more thankful for our families and friends who helped us take care of the animals, taking them out for walks, helping them with breakfast and dinner.”
“We had lost power and water,” said Savageau. “Every kennel was used for the animals, and we had no way to clean them. No ventilation. We had to act fast to get help, to get these babies out.”
On Friday, they used hand saws to help clear a path for vehicles. Escambia County Animal Control drove over from Pensacola and loaded up about eighty dogs and cats for relocation.
By Monday, the Southern Animal Rights Coalition came with generators and lights plus they cleaned all the kennels. “Their crew did most of the cleaning to help us because we were exhausted having worked 24/7, non-stop,” said Savageau. “We were living here because our homes were destroyed by the storm, so we had nowhere to go.”
A tree caved in two rooms of Savageau’s home, and a tree took off the front of Gill’s place. “We weren’t able to leave the property until Friday,” said Gill. “We were actually going to walk to hour homes. Luckily, the president of the Humane Society picked us up and took us to check out our houses. We stopped by my house and saw the trees, so we just kind of broke our way into my apartment, got a suitcase, put my clothes in it, and grabbed some other things I wanted.”
“The tree fell and busted the whole front entrance,” added Gill. “We are happy we are still kicking. Our situation isn’t the best, but we are lucky for what we do have. At least we had a dome-shaped building to run to in a crisis like this.”
Savageau’s two kids — who stayed in the dome during the hurricane — flew to Colorado to be with family while cleanup continued.
“We definitely didn’t expect to go walking around the street and not even recognize half of the town,” said Gill. “You drive around, and it is like, ‘Where are we?’ The buildings are unrecognizable. Places we visited plenty of times are gone. The medians in the road and the roads are just filled with debris. It is nothing but roads and destruction.”
“It is stuff you see on TV that you think would never happen, and it did,” said Savageau. “I was born and raised here. I know the streets, and I know where I am going and I got lost! It was insane.”
Savageau and Gill lived in the dome for two and half weeks. A friend of theirs — who stayed in the dome during the storm — also lost her home. However, she had purchased a “fixer-upper” that did survive. So Savageau, her children, Gill, and their friend are all living in the three bedroom, fixer-upper while they continue to clean up, get their bearings, and move on.
Savageau worked for the Humane Society of Bay County for over eleven years and Gill for six years. “We are very dedicated and passionate about what we do,” said Savageau. We love animals, or obviously, we wouldn’t be here.“
The Humane Society is a no-kill shelter. By law, they cannot take in strays. They receive dogs and cats from people who turn them in for various reasons and want the animals to be adopted. Hurricane Michael accelerated this process. "People were coming in left and right,” said Savageau. “It is so sad. People are having to give up their [pets] because they have nowhere to go themselves.”
The shelter is open even though the phone lines are down. They are making do with cell phones. The animal agencies are helping find homes out-of-town for the dogs and cats. Overall, they are working to get back to normal.
They need your help. More pets are coming in and need new homes. Money is needed for supplies and to rebuild. If you wish to help, visit the Humane Society of Bay County and click ADOPT or DONATE and help a good cause. Savageau says the best way to contact them directly — until phone service is restored — is through their Facebook Page.