Pensacola News Journal
Published 12:09 PM EDT Oct 14, 2018
Civil Air Patrol pilots Lt. Jason Nunley and Maj. Ben Poffenberger worked swiftly as they prepped a single-engine Cessna 172 for yet another mission to photograph the extent of Hurricane Michael's damage to the eastern Florida Panhandle.
The clear blue skies and crisp fall temperatures they encountered Saturday at the Pensacola International Airport were a far cry from what the area experienced just days earlier as Michael ripped a path of deadly devastation from Panama City to Southwest Georgia.
The flight that morning was one of the up to 15 missions the Florida Wing of Civil Air Patrol would fly on Saturday alone. The photos the pilot capture will provide Federal Emergency Management Agency officials a detailed aerial view of the damage Michael caused.
Poffenberger, who has been in the Civil Air Patrol for 18 years, said the damage the pilots have seen reminded him of the destruction Hurricane Ivan brought to the Pensacola area in 2004.
"The areas where the eye of the storm hit, the winds were strong enough that it knocked down all of the trees," Poffenberger said. "Not just a few trees here and there, but all of the trees. They're all laid down one way. We didn't see that around here since probably Ivan."
Where the center of the storm hit, it doesn't appear that a single structure escaped without damage, ranging from a few missing shingles to "total devastation," he said.
"You can tell where a building used to be, and there's a lot of debris on the ground around that spot," he said.
The pilots' flight out of Pensacola on Saturday took them along the coast to Destin, Panama City and Mexico Beach before returning to Pensacola.
Nunley, who was sitting in the pilot's chair for the flight, joined the Civil Air Patrol in 2014 after retiring from the Air Force. He said the only place he has seen damage like what Michael caused was in a combat zone.
"It really looks like a bomb crater or someone came in with bulldozer and pushed everything north," Nunley said.
Before takeoff, the crew had to get clearance from the Civil Air Patrol's air operations branch director for the region, Bill Conley. On Saturday, he helped the two pilots push the Cessna out of its hangar at the Pensacola Aviation Center.
Conley has been in aviation since his first solo flight in 1959, flying in air shows and managing a small regional airline out West. Now in retirement, Conley volunteers with the Civil Air Patrol and has been coordinating flights to survey Michael's damage since the hurricane passed and the weather was good enough to fly.
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On a normal day, the Civil Air Patrol in Northwest Florida usually flies one mission per day to watch for wildfires on the Eglin Air Force Base's massive test range. But since Michael, the group has ramped up flying missions across the hurricane-hit area.
Conley said the photos and reports he is getting back from pilots are among the worst he has seen from a storm.
"We keep going back to Mexico Beach," Conley said. "I used to hang out down there sometimes. There's nothing left. I've never seen anything as totally destroyed as that."
Conley said he expects the Civil Air Patrol will send FEMA between 5,000 and 8,000 photos that the agency can stitch together to provide a map of the impacted area.
On top of that, photos of critical infrastructure such as bridges and cellphone towers provide emergency officials the information they need to route supplies and relief efforts.
For Poffenberger, that's the whole reason he volunteers with the Civil Air Patrol.
"It allows me to do something that I enjoy doing, and do it with a purpose," he said.