The winds were howling, and the rain was coming. The outer bands of Hurricane Michael were closing in on the Florida Panhandle early one October morning, and time was of the essence to get everyone settled before the storm hit.
Sergeant First Class Joe Wulczynski, an Army dive instructor at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, knew the hurricane would soon make landfall. Every second mattered as Wulczynski worked to get a friend and his family to a safe place to ride out the storm. But something caught his eye in the rush to get everyone to safety.
The U.S. flag flying at Regions’ Panama City Main branch had been blown off the flagpole and was on the ground. No one from the branch team was on-site. They were all attending to last-minute storm preparations at home as Michael had intensified rapidly out in the Gulf, and their community was now in line for a direct hit from a much-stronger storm than they’d originally anticipated. The flag hadn’t been brought in the night before.
Wulczynski spotted the flag as he headed down West 23rd Street. The image of the flag stayed with him, and he made a split-second decision to act while making a return trip.
“The flag shouldn’t have been on the ground,” Wulczynski said. “I picked it up so it wouldn’t get damaged any further.”
Wulczynski has been in the Army for 19 years and has been deployed twice during his military service. He describes the flag as a rallying symbol for the freedom that he has spent his career working to protect.
In the days after the storm, Wulczynski displayed the flag on a light pole in his neighborhood as he and some of his neighbors stood watch while others slept. It was a reminder for them of the duty they carried to keep their neighborhood safe in the aftermath of the historic storm.
“It provided the presence that someone was watching over us,” Wulczynski said.
In the chaos of the weeks after the storm, the flag also provided a visual reminder of hope and endurance – a reflection of how this is a strong community, and while a daunting challenge was ahead, the recovery was underway, and life would return to normal.
The flag stayed on the light pole for more than a month, when Wulczynski took it down as power was being restored to his street. He folded the flag in a triangle fold and kept it in his vehicle until the perfect time to return it to Regions.
“I always intended to return it to Regions. I guess you could say I was simply borrowing it,” Wulczynski explained.
The branch itself was heavily damaged by Michael. Massive renovations began. And Wulczynski returned the flag to the branch in late May, the day renovations were completed.
“Good can be found in the midst of tragedy if you just take time to look for it,” said branch manager Andrew Nicol. “Joe Wulczynski’s effort will never be forgotten. The flag he recovered and returned to us will proudly be on display at our branch to serve as a reminder of the goodness and kindness that was present during the Panhandle’s recovery from Hurricane Michael.”
To celebrate the reopening of the Panama City Main building, Regions leadership in Panama City recently held a community-wide open house. The Regions team raised a new flag and shared Wulczynski’s story with those who attended.
“The community spirit across Bay County is stronger now more than ever,” said Steve Aase, Panama City Market Executive for Regions. “Regions is proud to be part of this community for the long term and to support those individuals like Joe Wulczynski who step up to do the right thing.”
Wulczynski wants his three children to learn an important lesson from his effort: “It doesn’t take long to do the right thing,” he said.