Tragedy Into Triumph

Tragedy Into Triumph

Since Hurricane Michael made landfall five years ago, Panama City has experienced a transformation, thanks in part to its ever-growing Mural Trail. 

Words by Laura Drummond
Photos by Shelbie Scippio, Michael Booini, Destination Panama City, @Mahhaala, @Maria_Carolyn, @AmyRainelli14, @GENSL, @Sierrasonshine


Strolling along the art bedecked streets of Panama City, Florida, it’s hard to imagine the devastation that befell this historic port town only five years ago.  

In October 2018, Hurricane Michael struck the city, leaving almost complete destruction in its wake. The Category 5 hurricane took the lives of 23 people in Bay County, where Panama City is located, and left survivors without electricity and water. It damaged or destroyed 90 percent of the city’s buildings and structures. 

In the aftermath, Panama City came back stronger, and more beautiful, than ever. The city didn’t just rebuild—it transformed. Part of that transformation is attributed to a public art project, the Panama City Mural Trail. In the handful of years since Hurricane Michael struck, more than 15 murals have brought color to Panama City’s historic neighborhoods. These murals, most of which have been painted by local artists, have become markers of the community’s metamorphosis. 

It wasn’t easy to start the mural project. A plan had already been years in the making before the hurricane hit, blocked by long-standing city ordinances prohibiting public art. Destination Panama City, the tourism arm of the city, had been diligently working to get those restrictions lifted. “Over the course of decades, public art has become more important regarding the identity and character of communities,” said Jennifer Vigil, President and CEO of Destination Panama City. “We set out to help the city with some research regarding the benefits of public art. It took about two years to get the ordinance of Panama City changed so murals could be allowed.”

Even after the ordinances changed, it still took years before the first mural would be complete. The project rightfully took a backseat to the significant cleanup and rebuilding efforts needed after the hurricane. “While the hurricane slowed the mural project down in the beginning, people truly recognized the importance of community pride and public art. It is one element of the community resiliency that emerged,” Vigil said.  

When Jayson Kretzer, Executive Director of the local arts nonprofit Bay Arts Alliance, learned about the idea for the mural project after Hurricane Michael, he jumped at the chance to get involved. “I wanted to let people know we’re coming back. There’s hope,” said Kretzer. “The storm is allowing us, like a butterfly, to come out of this cocoon, and be this colorful, beautiful, amazing thing,” Kretzer said. 

The mural project aligned perfectly with the organization’s vision of achieving “Art on Every Corner”—making art accessible to everyone regardless of socioeconomic factors or location. Kretzer became a member of the committee that reviews applications, evaluating the artist, proposed mural location, and subject matter, while Bay Arts Alliance secured funding to pay the artists for their work. 

The Panama City Mural Trail is truly a joint effort, bringing together the City of Panama City, Destination Panama City, the Downtown Improvement Board, the St. Joe Community Foundation, the Bay Arts Alliance, and more. “It is a 100-percent collaborative effort. No one person could have accomplished what we’ve done,” Kretzer said. “It took a village to make a really cool city.”  

The Mural Trail serves as a shining example of what can be possible when a community works together on a common goal. “I think it’s good for the rest of the world to see what kind of interesting people live here,” said Kretzer. “A thriving art scene can’t just exist in the shadows. Why not put it on the walls?” 

It’s also a testament to the impact public art can have on a community. “The murals are inherently inspiring to the people who see them,” said Vigil. “I hear parents talking about how they whip in on their way to school because their kid wants to look at the mural I painted of a cartoon ninja bear,” said Kretzer. “The kids are getting that daily dose of art, and I can only hope they're looking at that wall and thinking, ‘I want to paint a mural.’” 

Now, just about everywhere you look in Historic Downtown Panama City, you can take in masterful murals. There’s the Welcome Wall, featuring one stunning sight after another from an array of talented local artists. Nearby is Honeybee, a larger-than-life depiction of bees buzzing around a garden of flowers by Panama City artist Heather Parker, tucked in a convivial courtyard on the side of the Craft Beer Empourium. A short distance from that is the Town Centre, where you’ll find the vibrant Keep Dancing, in which renowned muralist George F. Baker III (aka GFB3) captures dancers in motion with smooth shapes and cheerful colors.  

With more public art in the works, the vibrancy of the community continues to flourish. Plans include more wall murals, crosswalk art, sculptures, and other three-dimensional artwork. “As long as we can continue to raise money,” Kretzer said, “we’ll continue to create public art.”