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.
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.
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