A TALE OF TWO TRAGEDIES: Hurricane survivors take refuge in Troy.

Published 3:00 am Saturday, October 27, 2018

Just think how happy you would be if you lost everything you had … and suddenly got it all back.

For Erik and Kaitlin McCarty, what they had wasn’t all that much. “But we would be so very, very happy to have it back,” Kaitlin said. “We had a rather crappy little apartment but it was home and we loved it. Now we don’t have anything.”

The couple and their one-year-old son, Ronan, rode out Hurricane Michael on that unforgettable October day. Along the ride, everything they had was destroyed right before their eyes.

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“But we were blessed; we only lost things,” Erik said. “Some people lost their lives and their families will never get over the hurt. For them, Hurricane Michael will always rage.”
Erik said he feared for the lives of his wife and son as they huddled in the bathroom of their small apartment on October 10, 2018.

“We are from Louisiana, so we’re used to dealing with threatening weather,” Erik said. “Where we lived in Panama City, we weren’t in an evacuation zone. We didn’t think Michael would be all that bad, so we decided to ride the hurricane out. Around noon, we realized that we had been wrong. Michael was bad.”

The raging winds peeled back the roof of the McCarthy’s apartment and “tossed” them around inside like bouncing balls.

“The windows were shattering. I could hear glass breaking and things falling all around us,” Kaitlin said. “We made it into the bathroom and closed ourselves in. We huddled there for about four hours with water seeping in from underneath the door. I held Ronan as close as I could. The loud noises scared him but he finally went to sleep. We prayed all the way through.”

Across the way in Port St. Joe, Clayton and Cassie Studstill were huddled in the attic above their garage. Clayton had gone into the attic planning to ride out the hurricane and catch up on some work. Cassie’s plan was to just take the opportunity for a little down time.

Clayton is an attorney in Port St. Joe and Cassie is in the real estate business. They make their home in Port St. Joe and own rental property there and in Mexico Beach.

Their properties had to be secured, so they had chosen to stay back and take care of business. Clayton spent the days leading up to Michael’s landfall moving boats and battening down the hatches, so to speak.

As Michael began to make its way ashore, the Studstills watched as trees began to fall. The power flickered and was then lost. The couple found what should be safe refuge in the attic. Then Michael hit with full force and the storm surge began filling the garage with water and the water pressure began to build.

“We first heard whooshing sounds,” Cassie said. “And then sharp, popping sounds.”

Propane tanks for the grills, gas cans, industrial spays were exploding. The garage was set on fire and the attic was filling with gas.

Clayton yelled, “It’s gonna blow; we’ve got to get out!”

Cassie said the water in the garage was high and rising. They had to swim out.
“The water rose to neck high as we were swimming out with fishing gear, potted plants, golf clubs, yard tools, baskets, laundry, everything we had in the garage floating all around us,” Cassie said. “About 30 seconds after we swam out, there was an explosion. Our house was on fire in the middle of a flood.”

Clayton’s impulse was to go fight the fire, but his wife held him back.

“Cassie had to drag me away to keep me from going to fight the fire,” he said.

“It was too dangerous and, really, what could we have done?” Cassie said.

From a “mystery” boat, the couple watched helplessly as fire lapped at their home, as everything was being consumed.

Even as they watched their home burn, Clayton and Cassie were thankful they had survived and that their kids were safely with family in Montgomery.

The two families, the McCardys and the Studstills had weathered the storm.

The McCardys made a bold attempt to get out of the city but were unaware of the curfew in place. However, a sympathetic officer allowed them to continue until they found a resting place in Ozark. The Studstills embarked on a 12-hour journey to Montgomery to be with their children.

Both couples later found safe harbor in Troy.

As grateful as they are for the many kindnesses shown to them in Troy and although they will always remember the generosity of the people, the hearts of both couples nudge them toward a place they can call home.

The Studstills have enrolled their children in Troy City Schools and will remain in Troy as they continue with their plans to rebuild.

Clayton has been back to Port St. Joe. Cassie plans to return soon to sift through the ashes and debris hoping to find what’s left of any family treasures and the can that contained all the keys to their lives.

The McCardys will live with relatives in Connecticut until they can build back their lives. He hopes to find work there and she hopes to complete her college degree. They will not go back to Panama City. There’s nothing left there for them.

The couples can only imagine how happy they would be if they suddenly got back everything Michael took from them.