While ‘850’ blankets Florida’s entire Panhandle, the three-digit code perhaps resonates more strongly as an identity marker signifying toughness and resilience in Panama City more than anywhere else.
PANAMA CITY — Reach of the 850 area code extends just over 250 miles as the crow flies, stretching from its most-westerly edge anchored on the Alabama state line by the Flora-Bama in Perdido Key to the southernmost boundary of Taylor County in the east.
While “850” blankets Florida’s entire Panhandle, the three-digit code perhaps resonates more strongly as an identity marker signifying toughness and resilience in Panama City more than anywhere else.
After the shocking winds, rains and tidewaters of Hurricane Michael decimated much of their hometown’s infrastructure and brought the local economy to its knees, the residents of Panama City found collective strength and renewed communal bonds by their use of a rather simple phrase, #850Strong.
Ready for all of this to be over, so I can go back to the sand. Yall be careful out there. #850strong pic.twitter.com/oDzKfhTYxT— James Big Johnson (@JamesJo96813035) March 25, 2020
The use of the hashtag on social media has remained commonplace ever since the 2018 storm hit, but its use has increased once again amid the COVID-19 crisis as more and more Panhandle social-media users outside Panama City adopt the idiom into their vernacular.
“The use of it started and just kind of grew from there after Michael,” said Valerie Sale, spokeswoman for Bay County. “I think that that hashtag was a way for people to unite in the face of substantial, significant adversity. “You could talk to just about anybody here, and they would recognize the hashtag.”
Many of the online forums and Facebook Groups created as resources and places to share information after Hurricane Michael included variations of “850” and “Strong” in their names. Those groups never disappeared, and as Panama City web surfers instinctively turned to familiar message boards in search of info and best practices in the face of the coronavirus, their favorite hashtag started to trend a little more.
Hey Panama City, FL area!
I want to take this time to give back to our community. Please help me contact anyone that needs a helping hand. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let me know if you would like to join me in this service to our community. #850strong always.
So it begs the question. What does #850Strong mean to the people of the Panhandle?
"(The hashtag) 850 Strong became a movement in the Panhandle right after Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10, 2018,” Celesta Newell wrote. “We are the forgotten coast and it was a ‘we are one’-type movement and feeling, directly after having everything you know to be ripped away in an instant.”
Newell described the terror-inducing sound of 200 mph gusts roaring past a home and the sight of ripped-up “huge, beautiful, full pine trees hitting the ground, knowing they are making a sound, and you can’t hear it.”
#hurricanemichael #850strong pic.twitter.com/nnhnTEO3TJ— Nathalie (@AuburnChick) March 28, 2020
“The feeling you get when you can’t reach your friends or loved ones for days and you finally do and get that hug like you thought you would never see them again,” Newell wrote. “850 Strong told us that we will be OK, and that during a crisis and chaotic time that neighbors were there for you because no one else was coming.
“We were 850 Strong then and we will come together through this next chaos as 850 Strong again.”
Denee Schleicher, of Panama City, knows that feeling well.
.@ShannonBream welcome back to the Sunshine State!
You’re right. Florida’s panhandle still has a long way to go. We’ve secured billions of dollars in disaster funding to aid recovery from Hurricane Michael, but there’s still more to do. #850Strong https://t.co/8iudwIp9zj
“It means there is nothing we can’t handle as a community. We are strong together. We will survive together,” Schleicher wrote.
“In my personal opinion, 850 represents the Panhandle,” wrote Kim Legg of the unincorporated community of Bayou George. “#850 Strong represents our people, the ones who live here and made a vow to stay and help rebuild to the best of our abilities.”
“A lot of people left, but the #850Strong are still here, and we’re not leaving, we’re #850Strong!”
If you’re in the North Florida area, tune into @WFSUmedia at 8:00pm tonight for a special TV program on the 1 year anniversary of #HurricaneMichael.
The resiliency of @mexicobeachfla and the entire Panhandle community is truly amazing, they are #850Strong. #RebuildingWithLove pic.twitter.com/gNqih08EOy
Despite its popularity, for many people it’s a bit of mystery who first started to use the hashtag.
“I’ve been in probably 40 different Facebook groups locally and no one can pin down who was the original,” said Kristi A. Kirkland of Panama City. “It just kind of exploded.”
After Hurricane Michael, Kirkland created the public Facebook group “850Strong” and two private Facebook groups for people to share their stories and resources with each other.
“I have tried tracking it down to see who is laying claim to this,” Kirkland said. “But I don’t think anybody really wanted to say, ‘Yes, that was totally my idea.’ Because there were a lot of people involved with coming up with it.”
What it’s like driving home from tally to Panama City 🥺🙁😩😢#850Strong pic.twitter.com/Tuw3nPyT1w— Yung Lunchable 🥪🧁 (@TiffMcSwagg) July 1, 2019
Bay County officials were also stumped about its origins.
“I’m sure somebody started it, but I don’t know who exactly,” Sale said. “But the county, in our communications with the public, used that hashtag a lot and so did a lot, a whole lot, of other people and organizations.”
And it doesn’t really seem to matter where the saying began.
As the people of the Panhandle find strength in its use, all evidence points to the conclusion that “#850Strong” will not be swept away.