We Are Not ‘Ok’

Bay County homes totally destroyed by Hurricane Michael. Photo by Jane Smith

My dear friend, Linda Artman, told me a story the other day that made me sad. She was flying into Panama City to spend a few weeks volunteering in the area, as she has done many times since Hurricane Michael, and to assist me with book promotions for In the Eye of the Storm, of which she is a contributing author.

She had a conversation with one of the airline hostesses, the topic of which, after further reflection, I consider to be at the heart of the current lack of understanding and support we are facing from outside the Panhandle. 

When asked what her destination was, Linda replied, “I’m headed to Panama City to spend a few weeks helping with recovery.”

To which the hostess replied, “Oh, it’s not so bad there. Just a few downed trees and such. A few damaged buildings, but overall ok.”

Linda was taken aback. So she asked the hostess, “ Have you been to Panama City or any of the other impacted areas?”

“Oh yes,” the woman replied, “I’ve flown into there many times and we stay in hotels on the beach.”

Linda probed further, “Have you gone over the bridge into town?”

“No,” the woman responded, “But it’s all the same area, really.”

At this point, Linda was getting increasingly frustrated with the conversation and the woman. “I can assure you,” Linda explained to the woman, “The areas just over the bridge, Panama City, Lynn Haven, Springfield, Callaway, and most definitely Mexico Beach, are not ok. The devastation in those areas, and even in areas north of there, is widespread and catastrophic.”

The woman just shrugged. Linda knew she wasn’t making any impact on her at all. So she offered, “I’d be glad to take you and some of your colleagues with me so you can see first hand what the residents are dealing with.”

The woman shook her head, “No that’s ok,” she replied, “I’m good.”

Linda was quite aggravated by this point. “That’s the problem,” she conveyed to me sadly, “People just don’t know and they don’t care enough to see for themselves; to correct their misperceptions.”

“That’s human nature, though isn’t it,” I replied, “ It’s much easier to keep your blinders on and to perpetuate the half-truths and untruths than it is to actually look into it yourself. If you do that, then you have to take responsibility, and God forbid, actually do something!”

If you come into the Panhandle and your only destination is the beach, then yes, you will definitely leave with the misguided perception that everything is ok, normal even. However, I can assure you, as can the thousands of residents who are living in the aftermath of Michael, we are not ok! The impacted areas ARE NOT OK!

Damage to Mexico Beach has been compared to that of Katrina in southern Mississippi in 2005, where entire communities were flattened by wind and storm surge. Panama City and its surrounding municipalities will take years to rebuild. 

We are facing a housing crisis with many people homeless with nowhere to go. There are currently almost 5,000 displaced and homeless in Bay County alone, including many school-aged children. That’s an increase of over 500% since before Michael! 

Heavy damage and complete destruction to many multi-family and fixed-income apartment complexes have compounded the problem. Currently, rising insurance claims have pushed property losses in the affected areas over $4.8 billion. 

Many businesses are closed long-term due to heavy damage. Many others are not reopening at all, but rather moving out of the area, creating a shortage of jobs. Which is only compounding the financial strains so many are facing. 

Bay District Schools (BDS) has suffered a student population drop of almost 5,000 students since Michael. The District is also experiencing the loss of teachers, support staff, and administrators. Since Micheal, the District has lost 181 employees and there is a substitute teacher shortage to contend with as well. 

If the downward trend continues, major reductions in teaching staff could become a problem for the District. To put it into perspective, 5,000 fewer students, an 18% reduction, equals 637 jobs (333 teachers). 

Currently, students are attending classes in portables and sharing still viable classroom space on an alternating schedule. 

The District is considering school closures ahead of next year due to the reduced capacity and the financial strains the storm caused. The reduction in ad valorem taxes due to the widespread reduction in taxable values, as well as the decreased student population, has put the current financial loss to the District due to Michael in excess of $300 million. 

State officials estimate that Hurricane Michael created about 20 million cubic tons of debris from Mexico Beach into Georgia as he barreled through the region on October 10, 2018. 

Hurricane Irma, which cut a path from the Florida Keys to Jacksonville in 2017, resulted in about 2 million cubic tons of debris by comparison. 

Though massive debris piles from the storm have lessened considerably, the abundance of rebuilding and constant construction has created new piles in their place. 

Downed trees still decorate almost every street and neighborhood in the region, along with the ever-present blue tarps and roofing collateral from those fortunate enough to actually be getting a new roof.

Photo by David Herring

Progress is being made. However, the scarred landscape and bare, broken trees will take years, and a much kinder Mother Nature, to rehabilitate and flourish. Driving anywhere in the impacted regions feels more akin to traveling through the aftermath of an apocalypse than home. The constant and ever-present reminders are a blow to the psyche and a punch to the gut every single day.  

Health officials report that signs of mental health problems and trauma are on the rise following Michael. Experiencing a disaster of this magnitude is a stressful event and anxiety and depression are common in the aftermath.

Research into post-storm and other major disasters shows that between 30 and 40 percent of victims develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It has been shown that following major events like Katrina, Harvey, Florence, and now Michael, that PTSD affects how people function in their jobs and personal relationships, as well as how quickly the community recovers. 

We’ve survived a major catastrophic event, yes, but everything we knew is gone.

Photo by John Fenwick

To those who perpetuate the myth that Hurricane Michael “Wasn’t that bad.” That, “Aside from a few downed trees and damaged structures everything is normal.” That, “Four months later everything is ok.” I implore you, come see for yourself. Come visit these areas. Walk around with your eyes wide-open. Talk with the residents, the survivors, the ones living daily in the aftermath. Volunteer to assist those aiding with the ongoing relief and rebuilding efforts. Do ANYTHING, but continue to propagate the misinformation and false perceptions.

I guarantee you that not one of us who lived through Michael, what he took and what he left behind, will tell you we’re ‘ok’.

We’re hopeful. We’re determined. We’re anxious and hurting. We’re scarred. We’re changed. We’re steadfast. We’re surviving. On any given day we’re one or all of these. But since October 10, we have not been, nor are we now ‘ok’. 

© Jennifer N. Fenwick

44 thoughts on “We Are Not ‘Ok’

  1. I live in Mexico Beach, Florida and would like to say thank you for the article. I see the problem with people outside of a disaster area just go back to their lives after their OOOOOOing and ahhhhhing is over. It really is hard not snap at people when they ask if we are about to get everything back to normal……Normal? Are you kidding me? We have our own little disaster inside the main disaster in that we have been lied to by a group that I will not name right now and insurance companies try to snake their way out of paying anything. Progress is slow at best and I still live and work in what looks like a war zone. Yesterday, my hometown in Alabama was racked with devastation during the tornadoes. Now they have to suffer the same types of loss that we had and it’s all taken me back to October 10.

    It’s not almost back to normal and everyone who has been through this and lives here will have a new normal because things will never actually be back to the pre-storm normal. We will be ok but we are not ok yet for sure. We have even talked to people who do not know that we were hit by a hurricane. You spoke about how people do not want to see for themselves. They take the cowards way out. They either don’t care or use the excuse of just wanting to remember it the way it was and not see it now post-storm until everything is fixed. They are cowards to take that stance and those that don’t even know about it at all must be living under a rock, except that even the news outlets except for here locally dropped it quickly and moved on to the next thing, just like those who think we are back to normal.

    I apologize for ranting on your thread and again thank you for the article, but I am a little bitter by the attitudes of those who think this way and do this way and for the way we have been done and are still being done in the aftermath of this disaster.

    1. I’m glad you found an outlet for your discouragement and frustration. I’ve lived in Panama City all my life, except for the first three years I was married (1988-1991). My husband and I returned to the Panhandle to raise our daughters near family and the beautiful beach communities in our area. We’ve spent many many wonderful moments in Mexico Beach. The devastation truly breaks my heart. Unless you’ve survived something of this magnitude and lived in its aftermath, you cannot know the grief and heartache. I wrote the piece out of the same frustration you’ve expressed. Simple acknowledgement of what we’ve been through and awareness of the actual situation, prayers, thoughtfulness….it’s not that hard, but it means so very much. God Bless you and I pray your family in Alabama is safe.

  2. Thank you that’s all I’m going to. Say we will get better we will survive

  3. Here in Donalsonville, GA, Hurricane Michael roared in with strong Category Three winds. Donalsonville is a small hamlet in a rural area blessed with productive farms, pecan orchards, and pine forests. Its beautiful pecan and pine trees were turned into weapons of destruction by the fierce winds that broke them like matchsticks or ripped them from the ground. A great deal of damage was caused when trees crashed into houses and vehicles. Mobile homes, barns, and outbuildings were tossed off their foundations as if they were doll house furniture. October 10th, the day of the hurricane, was in the middle of harvest season. Cotton crops were ruined. Peanut crops were a fraction of what they should have been. It will take years to recover from the devastation. Down every road there are still piles of debris. Huge tracts of timber, twisted and broken, remain as witnesses to the storm’s power. Yet we are still here, discouraged, but at the same time, resilient and hopeful.

    1. That is so very beautiful. I’m so sorry you experienced such heartbreak and devastation. So grateful that through it all you remain hopeful and resilient. God bless you and your home.

    2. Thank you for sharing , for caring to share and for the insight. Know others care also.

  4. I was just down there with Team Rubicon, and this is spot on. Anyone heading right out of ECP into PCB isn’t going to see the destruction to anywhere near the level it is when you go left and into town over the bridge. I didn’t even get out to our crews in Mexico Beach, and was amazed at the devastation. I was stationed up the coast at Eglin for a while (when Opal came through in ’95), and now I live in tornado country in Kansas. Much of Lynn Haven reminded me of Joplin after the tornado in 2013. At least a tornado packing 150mph winds is only a few hundred yards wide and lasts 10 minutes, tops. A hurricane packing that hangs around for days and carves a much wider path.

    It’s going to be many years before things are OK there.

    1. Thank you so much for your input! The Florida Panhandle has been my home since 1967, when I was born. My mom’s family moved here from New York in the mid-1940’s. She was just five at the time. My husband’s family moved here in the late 80’s from Phoenix, AZ. This is home and it always will be. Every voice is important and I am grateful that you’ve added yours. God Bless!

  5. Let’s not forget farther inland either. Calhoun and Jackson are still in a world of heart.

  6. If you’re ready to get your life back on track, albeit a “new normal,” but you’re going to have to wait months for a general contractor to get around to you, consider talking with Dustin Wells. Dustin is our oldest son who is a third generation contractor in Tallahassee.

    Check him out: DustinWellsConstruction.com. Be sure to read his story. Then, if you’re ready for a honest, reliable, dedicated straight shooter, give him a call: 850-567-0759. The call is free, and there’s no obligation afterwards if you meet with him and decide to go in a different direction.

    We have encouraged him to help out our friends and neighbors in Panama City, and he has made time in his construction schedule to take on PC projects.

  7. Hello,
    I am a PCB resident and also an “air hostess” although I do prefer the term flight attendant. I make it a huge point when anyone asks me to explain the devastation properly and separate the two areas. It makes me sad to think that people don’t understand it but a lot of us especially in the airline industry are trying to educate people.

  8. Hello,
    I am a PCB resident and also an “air hostess” although I do prefer the term flight attendant. I make it a huge point when anyone asks me to explain the devastation properly and separate the two areas. It makes me sad to think that people don’t understand it but a lot of us especially in the airline industry are trying to educate people.

    1. Thank you for your efforts. I never know which term is preferred, lol, air hostess or flight attendant. I hope I didn’t offend you. Sorry if it did. It was not intentional. On a serious note, thank you for being a voice for us and continuing to educate those who might not otherwise know, or even care. God bless.

  9. Thank you so much for the update. I was born and raised in Panama City, moved away as an adult, but parents lived there until they passed on. It will always be my hometown, spent every vacation visiting them and friends and relatives there. These photos break my heart all over again. Be assured that I do what little I can to make people aware of the continuing need there. Continued prayers for you all.

      1. They were here religiously providing food and comfort stations through the area from the day after the storm until almost December when power was finally restored throughout the region. We have a local Red Cross chapter that is continuing to provide assistance and resources. Thank you for your volunteer efforts. They are a wonderful organization!

  10. People that don’t live here will never understand what we have to live through everyday here in Panama City. Just when I thought my home was in the clear three months after the storm, the black mold is starting to set in and our entire ceiling needs to be replaced and now it’s too late to get funding. My hometown will never be the same!

    1. I am so very sorry for your troubles. So many are facing the same plight. It’s heartbreaking in so many ways that those who’ve never experienced or face it daily will never understand. God be with you.

  11. Thank you for your commitment to spreading the word that people there are still suffering four months later. Housing is the worst need. I know there have been FEMA trailers for some but so many more needed. I had to leave the area until my funding allows me to rebuild my house. Coming back trying to rebuild is very difficult due to the high cost of lodging if you can find it. It will be interesting to see how Spring Break goes this year. Moving around is getting better but still not easy.

    1. Spring break and the coming tourist season are a huge concern since so many are in need of housing. However, tourism is also a definite boon to the struggling local economy, providing jobs and bringing much needed financial gains. It’s a double-edged sword and there are no easy answers. One day at a time has become all that the majority of us can handle at the moment.

  12. What is the best way to find out who to volunteer with to just be general labor to help those who are most in need of help ? I am skilled at helping.

  13. People out of the area “just don’t get it’! Panama City, Blountstown, Marianna are the heart of my territory for my job. I have worked in Panama City on & off for 30 years. I just returned from a national meeting where I spoke to people across the country. They are a group of very sharp, engaged, compassionate people and the lack of knowledge about the devastation from Hurricane Michael was astounding. One man was from California and right after we talked about Panama City, he brought up the shootings & fires that occurred shortly after Hurricane Michael…. which were also terrible. National news shifted and didn’t follow up. So many people in Panama City feel forgotten. I have many people praying for the area which I am thankful. I ask for people to take action… look for opportunities to volunteer or donate. It truly will be a housing crisis as the tourists take over PCB and the displaced locals must leave. I am one voice outside for the area. I will keep shouting for y’all and helping wherever I can! Stay strong and take joy in small, individual progress! The overall situation can be overwhelming.

    1. I agree my sister said that so many people will have to leave temporary housing because of tourists coming in to take their spot.

    2. …and there are smaller towns and communities you haven’t mentioned. Employment and housing was a struggle pre-storm. Post storm magnified the issues 10 fold. (I live in Altha)

      1. Thank you, Jana. I know there are places and people all over the region hurting. Michael has affected us all in so many ways. I’d love to do a piece on some of these areas and include on my blog and as we continue to promote the book. We will be doing book signings in Tallahassee and Panama City. I’d love to come to your area and meet with, talk to and perhaps encourage people to share stories with me. We are considering a follow up to In the Eye of the Storm, an Anniversary edition that includes more stories, as well as progress and Hope a year later.

  14. I and my family have been here since the mid-60’s. What gets me is the loss of landmarks when driving around. I actually have to read the road signs (the ones that are still there) to tell where in the heck I am! I have actually gotten “lost” looking for places that use to be as familiar as the back of my hand!!! :/

    1. It is so heartbreaking. I was born here and aside from a few years living out west have been here my whole life! My Mom’s family moved here from New York in the mid-40’s. My parents actually bought the house she was raised in after my grandpa passed in 1962 and raised all six of us in it! She still lives in it to this day. The house survived the storm, but like The Cove, where I live and so many other places, my childhood neighborhood will never be the same. 😔

    2. Even the locals that live there and people that have worked there experience what you described! It is very disorienting! The landscape is changing, too as condemned properties are torn down! Nice to hear from someone that gets it and has heart felt understanding!

      1. This has been my family’s home for over for more than seven decades and mine for all my life. My heart is here. Seeing the destruction breaks my heart in ways I could never convey. Thank you for your kind words.

  15. Could this be forwarded to high level management of some of the big companies in town. My wife is a pharmacist at CVS, where her and her staff have been overwhelmed and understaffed since the hurricane. She and her staff have been told they should “just get over it”.

    1. That’s horrible! I’m not sure about forwarding. But if anyone approaches me to republish, I will certainly consider that! I hope things get better for you and you family. God bless you 💙

  16. Could this be forwarded to high level management of some of the big companies in town. My wife is a pharmacist at CVS, where her and her staff have been overwhelmed and understaffed since the hurricane. She and her staff have been told they should “just get over it”.

  17. My husband just returned again from volunteering in that area. He and a group of men from about 10 different states have been down several times since the hurricane hit that area. They take chain saws – heavy equipment and work to help as many people as possible. The area hasn’t changed much – the devastation is beyond belief 😢 🙏

    1. God bless your husband and those that come. We are grateful and blessed by the generosity of so many. We will be ok again some day. This is home. It always will be. ♥️

  18. You hit the nail on the head. We are not ok and won’t be for a long time. You have to see it first hand to know the total devastation here. Thank you for your great article and bless you for helping our towns.

  19. Thank you for writing this. I grew up in Wewa and went down shortly after Michael to take down supplies to the area from Ohio. I am constantly trying to post things on FB to keep people engaged with this. No one is talking about it on the news or seems to take interest. So sad. Sharing your story on my page now.

    1. Thank you Karla! I was born and raised in Panama City and aside from the first three years of my marriage when we lived in Phoenix, AZ, this has always been home. It’s a very different place, now. It’s not so much the lack of media attention, or the lack of financial support we’ve received versus other recent major storms like Michael, it’s the lack of understanding and callus comments that inspired this story. Unless you see it first hand or have experienced a similar plight, you will never understand. At least look into the situation personally, maybe check a few facts before speaking. Be responsible or at the very least respectful enough to do that rather than continuing the spread of misinformation. I appreciate your response and the share! BTW….my siblings and I spent many summers on a farm in Wewa growing up! Some of the best summers of my childhood!

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