“Everyone here has a story of loss they struggle to describe and recovery they cannot yet comprehend.”
1. There was no way to adequately prepare.
We’d done this before, many of us, more than once; prepared for the possibility of a hurricane visiting us during the Season. We were used to Summer ushering in, not just the tourists, but the Atlantic Hurricane Season as well. Hurricane Season begins the first of June and lasts through the end of November every year.
Living in the Panhandle of Florida, we knew that during any given Season we could be at risk, so preparedness was something we took seriously. Many of us had remained through Opal (1995) and Ivan (2004) and felt confident we could safely weather Michael as well.
But there are some things you can’t prepare for. Some things that happen so quickly and change so dramatically that no amount of preparation matters. Hurricane Michael was one of those.
“I think that if people are comparing storms, what was really fascinating was that Michael was still intensifying when it was making landfall, which is similar to Hurricane Camille also intensifying as it moved inland,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski, in an article that appeared in Time Magazine. “Other storms, like Hurricane Opal in 1995, actually went from a category 4 to 3, just like most storms that make landfall on the Gulf Coast tend to weaken.”
In an October 10, teleconference organized by FEMA, Brad Kieserman, vice-president for disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross said, “This storm intensified extremely quickly. It didn’t give anyone time to do much. And the one thing you can’t get back in a disaster is time.”
2. The destruction was catastrophic and widespread.
Michael’s path was far reaching. From the coast of the Panhandle deep into the farming and forestry communities of north Florida and Georgia, he carved massive swaths of utter destruction.
As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare of unimaginable proportions.
“Nothing, and I stress NOTHING, could have prepared us for what we saw,” said Jane Smith, who rode out the storm with her husband and son in their Bay County home. “I think at this point we went into shock.” Smith and her family, like many, lost everything and are now trying to recover and rebuild in this new normal.
As the days crept by, the nightmare only worsened. Residents in the affected areas struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who returned, once allowed, faced total destruction of their property.
“Just 1 in 10 of Panama City’s homes and businesses scraped by unscathed. The rest were damaged or destroyed, local officials said. The county property appraiser put the damage total in Bay County alone at $1.3 billion and counting.”
Kathryn Varns | Tampa Bay Times | 27 DEC 2018
“With nowhere to go people were resigned to living in campers, tents, or bunking with neighbors, and relying on portable toilets and boxed ready-to-eat meals provided by FEMA, the Red Cross or other volunteers,” reported The Guardian in an October 26, 2018 article by Jamiles Lartey.
Power was destroyed. Water was dangerous to use and consume. Cell and internet service was nonexistent. Cut off from the rest of the world, each day brought new struggles.
Some recovery efforts began immediately. Like the over 6,000 linemen who descended on the region within hours to restore power to the 800,000 residents left in the dark.
Like the acres and acres of felled trees, the region’s power lines and grids suffered the same fate courtesy of Micheal’s more than 155-mph sustained winds.
Search and recovery began within hours with teams of first responders, National Guard, and law enforcement from around the country deployed to the area. Safety was the number one priority in the aftermath of Michael’s intense fury.
In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through the piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town.
Even now, almost six months after Michael, Mexico Beach is in tatters. According to a WJHG/WECP story which aired on March 28, “There are only three restaurants currently open in Mexico Beach, three of its four hotels have been demolished, and the other one is still being rebuilt.”
“This landscape is changed forever. For lack of a better term, desolate,” said Al Burnett, a Mexico Beach resident, whose home was literally lost to Michael’s storm surge. “My best educated guess is that things will never be right for maybe the next three or four years … maybe never.”The Guardian | 29 October 2018
The impact from Michael is not just limited to the coastal region of the Florida Panhandle. The widespread catastrophic damage spread well inland as Michael remained at hurricane strength into the rural and farming communities of Florida and southwest Georgia, before passing through Virginia and North Carolina, and then finally making his way back out to the Atlantic.
3. The World moved on. We could not.
Traveling anywhere in the impacted regions feels more akin to moving 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.
“People get lost driving around because landmarks were wiped out. They spray-paint their address on a piece of plywood and lean it against the garage door. They eat dinner in a McDonald’s surrounded by construction workers chowing down on quarter-pounders” (Tampa Bay Times).
And while basic necessities have been restored, life in the region is far from normal as people struggle to make a way in this dramatically altered landscape.
Currently, some displaced families are living in a tent city in the backyard of one generous woman who decided that instead of turning her back, she would do something. People have been forced to take shelter in campers, parked in the driveways of homes without roofs, sometimes without structures at all. Others have been forced to return to their all-but-leveled apartment complexes because there is simply nowhere else to go.
As of mid December, FEMA has given out about $28 million in housing repair grants, approved about 14,000 homeowners and renters for rental assistance, and had about 600 families staying in hotels. But without properties to rent and hotels quickly filled to capacity these are short-term solutions. Once the money runs out, with still no home to return to, what becomes of those already struggling before the storm?
To make matters worse. Donations for Michael to three of the top disaster aide organizations have fallen well below the national average for similar storms, like Harvey, Florence, and Irma, who also hit the South in the past two years. “Survivors of Hurricane Michael fear that they’ve been forgotten,” (The Washington Post, 6 APRIL 2019).
4. The numbers don’t lie.
Since October 10, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid bureaucracy threaten to swirl into a massive storm of its own.
- In Bay County alone, 5,500 students have had to leave their living situations because of hurricane damage (News Herald, 28 MAR 2019).
- Skyrocketing rent prices have further compounded the housing crisis (My Panhandle, 22 MAR 2019).
- Health officials report that signs of mental health problems and trauma are on the rise following Michael, including an increase in the number of Baker Act incidents in the school district (WJHG, 13 MAR 2019).
- More than 3 million acres of Florida’s forestry industry were severely damaged by Michael and about half of the damage was catastrophic, meaning 95 percent of the trees were lost, according to the Florida Forestry Service. With large tracts of managed land in the region, the storm is expected to cost the timber industry more than $1.3 billion (News Herald, updated 1 APR 2019).
- In Florida, cotton farmers essentially lost most of the season’s crop, which was ready for harvesting when it was swept away by the 155-mph winds. Aquaculture along the Gulf Coast, including oyster farming, suffered 80 percent to 100 percent losses from Michael (Jim Turner, News Service of Florida).
- Michael barreled through Georgia at Cat 3 strength causing nearly $2.5 billion in damage, to the state’s agricultural industry. State agriculture commissioner Gary Black said the losses were “our worst dreams being realized.” Crops of all kinds—cotton, timber, and vegetables—suffered heavy damages. (Atlanta Magazine, 17 JAN 2019).
- Hurricane Michael left nearly seven times the debris of Hurricane Irma, which barreled across 45 counties in 2017 (Pensacola News Journal, 8 JAN 2019).
- Hurricane Michael is responsible for 35 deaths in Florida, 45 total (NBC Miami, 28 OCT 2018).
“Of all the Florida Panhandle areas affected by Michael, Bay County was hardest hit: Officials said almost three-quarters of its 68,000 households were affected. Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, who is leading a hurricane recovery initiative, estimated about 20,000 people were homeless in the weeks after the October storm.”
AP News | 4 MARCH 2019
5. The future may be uncertain, but we remain determined.
As we navigate this strange new world, there are days when the frustration and grief become overwhelming. Days when the determination grows stronger. Days when the fatigue and stress settle deeper into our bones.
Through it all, we try to remain hopeful. The world may have moved on, the impacts of Michael may still be revealing themselves, recovery and rebuilding may be ongoing with no definitive end in sight, but there’s one thing we’re all certain of, it will be a long time, and a lot of hard work, before we are OK again.
© 2019 Jennifer N. Fenwick, Bay County resident, author/editor,
In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle