Rebuilding the Bands by the Bay

Mike Lawson • Features • December 4, 2018

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In September the North Bay Haven Charter Academy Marching Band and its auxiliary units brought home the first-ever regional first place of any Bay County, Florida high school.

Their competition field production, Darkness into Light, was based on the five steps of dealing with grief, loss, and death. The Kubler-Ross inspired material culminates with acceptance. On October 10th, this same music organization and its entire community lived out the Darkness into Light when hurricane Michael, a strong category 4 storm at that point, slammed ashore with 155 mph winds and with its eye passing directly over the Panama City, Florida schools. Now the population, the schools, and their bands deal and work with the acceptance of what Michael left behind.

SBO has worked with two of the Bay County Florida (Panama City) high schools to assess and report on the impact to their music and band programs. While only ten miles apart they address different populations but share common challenges after the storm. Both schools have bands of accomplishment directed by dedicated and highly capable directors.

Bay High School is a Title 1 public school. Nicholas Efstathiou is the director of bands. He is a native of Panama City and an alumnus of Bay High (1998). He became the director in the fall of 2006. Nick is a graduate of Troy University (Alabama) with both his bachelor and master’s degrees. Under his direction, the Bay High Tornado Band has participated in the Chicago Thanksgiving Day Parades, as the model band at the Southeastern United States Honor Band and Director’s Clinic at Troy University, the Orange Bowl Parade and pre-game, the Con Brio Music Festival in Whistler, Canada, and has been invited to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Dublin, Ireland in 2020.

The North Bay Haven Academy is a charter high school within the Bay County District School system. Music and director of bands, Justin Bell, had brought this band to the first-ever regional title in Bay County in this, his very first year, at this school. He described the events leading up to Michael, “We had only known a little about a tropical storm somewhere out in the Gulf of Mexico when we were performing on Friday.

Preparations were suggested for possible flooding since the school is located on a peninsula into the bay. Extreme winds were never mentioned!”

The physical impact of the hurricane to these schools and their bands included facilities, equipment, uniforms, and instruments. Band trailers are not designed to fly, but a few did during Michael. Landings were not graceful. The North Bay Haven trailer was impaled on a tree stump left when the rest of the tree blew away. The Bay High School trailer slammed into the field tower which wound up collapsed on top of the trailer. In both cases, the trailers held audio sound systems, electronics, and large instruments. All contents were lost, destroyed, or are unusable.

Bay High School has their band members take their uniforms home as part of developing responsibility. Remarkably most of these are still serviceable. The wardrobe room at the school has not been fully inspected but appears to have protected a large number of uniforms stored there. The Academy appears to have lost most, or all, of their uniforms to water and mold.

The impact on the support for music and band programs is less obvious. Generally, when we discuss disasters and disaster recovery, we look to local or regional resources and the traditional music or education support sources (band boosters) for assistance. After Hurricane Michael, many of these resources simply ceased to exist.

The two primary fund-raising band activities at North Bay Haven had included income from their band booster operated concession stand at their football games. Their entire football season was cancelled. At nearby Bay High School, which also operates a concession stand, four games, including a well-attended traditional rivalry and homecoming, were cancelled.

The other North Bay Haven major fundraising project was a Christmas gift-wrapping station at the local shopping mall, the Panama City Mall. This is the town’s only major mall with 78 businesses including four large national anchor stores. The mall is currently closed with no firm re-opening date even projected. Winning the regional title had qualified the North Bay Haven band to compete for the state championship.

The loss of their facility, equipment, uniforms, fundraising, and sponsorship made the band’s first earned appearance at the November 17th Florida Marching Band Championships in St. Petersburg an impossibility!

What should the community and North Bay look for in the future? Let’s look at this new band director’s track record of leadership and growth. Bell’s first assignment was in Lewis County, Tennessee. He took a band program that was scheduled to be shut down and, in seven years, built an award and scholarship-winning organization. Students from his band program were selected for the Honors Performance Series at Carnegie Hall and the All-American Marching Band.

Michael did not wield his destructive energy only on the Academy. Nearby Bay High School also took significant damage. Like the Academy, they have a much-deserved future project that will rely on significant fundraising activities and performances. With the community and school family dealing with significant loss, the band’s invitation to visit Dublin, Ireland in 2020 is at some risk.

The father of a first year North Bay Haven band member described the situation. He works for Gulf Power, the primary electric utility in the area and his wife is a nurse at the local hospital. Their brick house survived with part of the roof blown off, as well as their porch. After nearly a day cutting their way out of their neighborhood, they worked nonstop for days at their jobs. After helping clear the neighborhood, their son is ready to help rebuild his band.

A Bay High School band booster officer who also is the head of the school district IT department took time from cutting the remaining trees off his house to note the bands are a community of friends. He had been a high school band member and his three daughters all have been in the Bay High band.

“That community of friends in the band will see us through whatever it takes to get back to normal,” he says. “Our district superintendent also has a band background and his kids are in the band, so we’ll get support when we need it!”

And what about the most important element of any music and band program, the students? Bay High School band director, Nick Efstathiou, sees this as potentially his most important loss, “Some families have had to move away. They’ve lost their homes and also their place of employment. In a few cases, the students are staying behind, sharing space with another classmate’s family who are able or have chosen to stay and rebuild. Other students have had to transfer schools due to local transportation concerns.” He went on to add, “while these numbers are relatively small, every student and band member is significant!”

In developing this story, it’s difficult to be focused on the needs and future of a school band and music program when much of the community, including some of the band member’s families, are living at a local church or in a tent city on church grounds. Other student families, as well as teachers, have moved away to live with friends and relatives elsewhere. For some, the loss of their place of employment may mean that these are permanent moves.

A common theme heard from band directors, band boosters, parents groups, students, and local sponsors is a positive resolve to first, get back to normal, and then continue to grow and succeed!

Perhaps the best reflections and perspective came from North Bay Haven senior, Sarah G., the band captain, “We were lucky to have our band room safe. The hardest part was seeing the band trailer I loaded for four years with a tree through it. It brought me to tears! There had been music and Santa hats inside, so when it was torn apart there were Santa hats all over the place. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen.”

She continued, “Just being able to come back again and play our music as a group sent chills down my spine and gave me a peace that washed over me as I was again able to play with them for the first time in over a month. Hurricane Michael took something away from everyone, but I know that this band will continue to press forward and succeed!”

Another graduating senior, Elizabeth H., the auxiliary captain at North Bay Haven described, “the town where I spent my whole life was destroyed. Our house was ruined. We moved from hotel room to relatives homes to a camper in our old driveway. My senior year has been devastated including the critical college application time. My last few half-time shows were ripped away along with our band’s very first state competition! But I know that the band will rebuild and come back stronger than ever! Our band will be a major threat at competitions next year. Our band is the ‘get up and do it’ type.” She continued, “I’ll be able to come back from college and watch my band family thriving after this disaster!”

The local high school band may truly be just the tail of the dog, but if we can get that tail wagging, the dog will come along!

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