The Florida Panhandle, Four Months After

It’s been almost four months since Hurricane Michael ravaged my home in the Florida Panhandle. With devastating 155-mph sustained winds and a storm surge that literally wiped Mexico Beach, Florida off the coast, this region is battered, bruised, broken, and hurting.

The devastation in Mexico Beach, a coastal community in the Panhandle of Florida which bore the brunt of Michael’s fury, is catastrophic. Photo by Shutterstock/Terry Kelly

“Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed by the hurricane, which pushed storm surges of up to 14ft (4.3m) in some areas. Michael brought winds that ripped roofs from buildings and tore through walls, leaving behind, in some cases, nothing but the skeletons of structures and images of devastation where whole neighborhoods once stood.”

From an article appearing in Independent Minds, October 18, 2018

Sadly, the rest of the world has moved on. Media coverage dried up a few weeks after the storm. While the outside world has turned its attention to other things, we have no such outlet. Our world has been boiled down to the very basics of survival, recovery, and rebuilding. Our infrastructure, forestry industry, homes, and businesses have been reduced to mere shadows of what they were before Michael visited his fury on us. Everywhere we turn there are reminders. Reminders of what was, reminders of what will never be again, and deep grooves of destruction and scarring in the landscape all around us.

This is our reality. Photo by Shutterstock/David Herring

Housing Crisis

“Disasters hurt the poorest people most, especially renters. In the best of times, affordable housing is hard to come by; the local housing authority’s waiting list stretched well beyond a year. After a storm, renters have little control over their recovery because they don’t own the property.”

Nicole Dash, an associate professor in emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas (The Tampa Bay Times, December 27, 2018)

Housing has definitely been an issue since the storm hit. The Tampa Bay Times reported that, “Just 1 in 10 of Panama City’s homes and businesses scraped by unscathed. The rest were damaged or destroyed. The Bay County property appraiser put the damage total at $1.3 billion and counting.”

According to an October 23, 2018 story appearing in the Newsherald, the impact of Michael on Bay County’s public and subsidized housing has been devastating. “Half of the Panama City Housing Authority’s 450 apartment homes have been condemned,” said Teri Henry, the authority’s executive director.

“Things are not moving at the pace local residents and officials were hoping for. Many people feel forgotten watching the country move on without them, as if life were back to normal. How could that be when displaced families are living in a tent city? When people are forced to take shelter in campers, parked in the driveways of homes without roofs? When stragglers stick by their all-but-leveled apartment complex because there is simply nowhere else to go?”

The Tampa Bay Times, December 27, 2018
Tent cities, like the one shown above, began to spring up throughout the region following the storm. Photo by Linda Artman, Bay County resident, and volunteer.

According to a story presented by WJHG-TV news, progress is being made, although, “Residents say they want to see more improvements as time goes on like more debris pickup in harder hit areas as well as more housing options for those in need.”

County Schools

“Since students in Bay County returned to classrooms in early November, they’ve dealt with power outages, sporadic internet, missing friends, larger classes, and shared buildings.”

The Orlando Sentinal, November 10, 2018
One of the most heavily damaged schools in Bay County, Jinks Middle School’s gym was completely destroyed by Michael. Photo by Rebekah Nelson, Bay County resident.

In November, students displaced from heavily damaged Bay County schools moved into less damaged schools, sharing buildings and alternating schedules to accommodate everyone, with one school holding classes in the morning and the other school holding classes in the afternoon.

While this is far from an ideal situation, both students and teachers have begun to adapt. “You can see the staff, they’re taking it one day at a time. They say they’re OK, but I don’t know if they’re OK. They’re putting on a smile and a brave face for the kids,” said JoBeth Davis, a special education teacher at Deer Point Elementary School in Panama City.

According to an article appearing in the Orlando Sentinal, “A little more than 29,000 students across the district [Bay] were enrolled in schools on the last day of classes before Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle with winds topping out at 155 miles (250 kilometers) per hour. Enrollment had dropped by more than 2,600 students, almost 9 percent, districtwide by the Friday before Thanksgiving.”

District officials said that drop could increase as requests for transfers to other school districts catch up with the number of students who have left. Some individual schools have had drops in enrollment as high as a fifth of the student body.

Since Michael, Bay District Schools has relaxed their dress code, as many students lost all of their belongings in the storm and are wearing donated clothing items. Over 200 modular units have been brought in to accommodate displaced students, while generous donations from across the country have provided much-needed school supplies.

“The lack of available housing, closed stores, and lingering debris piles have been factors in a number of teachers leaving and likely will make recruiting new teachers to the district difficult,” said Alix Underwood, who is the president of the teachers association, ” Teachers and staff members with damaged homes are still dealing with insurance adjusters, roofers, and contractors but can’t take calls while they’re in classrooms. Many teachers who lost their homes are living with friends or family members or driving two hours to work from where they found new housing.”

Donations Fall Short

“Hurricane Michael was a major disaster, but big donors haven’t treated it as one.”

The Tampa Bay Times, January 31, 2019

According to Emily L. Mahoney in a Times/Herald Tallahassee article, “The Florida Panhandle’s low profile meant the media attention came and went, so the disaster never drew the major corporate donations that other storms did. That’s a harsh reality — just like the conditions in which thousands of Floridians still find themselves living more than three months after the storm struck. Tarps on roofs. Families still in shelters. People taking refuge in their cars.”

According to the Times/Herald analysis of contributions to three prominent national charities, donations to Hurricane Michael recovery fall far below donations for recent landmark hurricanes to hit the South such as Florence, Irma, and Harvey.

The level of damage left behind by Hurricane Michael, who barrelled into the Florida Panhandle is catastrophic. According to Mahoney, “Those who felt the full force of Michael were in Florida’s Panhandle, where state officials estimate property damage at nearly $5 billion. That’s more than Irma. Yet somehow, at least nationally, Hurricane Michael is not even a topic of conversation.”

This is what destruction looks like. Photo by John Fenwick, Bay County resident.

Hurricane Michael made landfall on Oct. 10 last year, 155-mph winds and widespread flooding delivered the first blow. But since then — and perhaps worse — a paltry financial outpouring has prolonged the misery and delayed the recovery. Why? 

The Tampa Bay Times, October 29, 2019

Why? That would be the question residents of the region continue to ask. Why has the world moved on and forgotten us? Why have recovery efforts progressed so slowly? Why have donations fallen so short? And then, the “when’s” begin. When will things truly begin to get better? When will “normal” cease to feel like such a foreign concept? And perhaps most importantly of all, when will we, the people who experienced this historic storm and are living in the aftermath every single day, truly begin to heal?

© Jennifer N. Fenwick, Bay County resident and author, In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle