The Forgotten Coast

As Dorian approaches, media outlets are reporting it as “an unprecedented storm in Florida,” and that Dorian “would be the strongest storm to hit Florida since 1992.”

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image by Sharon Owens

As I look around the barren landscape and notice the still clinging blue tarps, the vacant lots where homes and businesses used to stand, the stark and revealing evidence that some forgotten disaster occurred here, I have to wonder, exactly when the rest of the world decided Michael was nothing more than a blip on their radar?

For us, Category 5, Hurricane Michael changed everything. Just ten months ago we were struggling through the first days and weeks following the destruction he left behind.

Those of us who have lived in the aftermath of Michael have weathered countless storms since that day last October. Though progress is being made, the region and its people are suffering.

Now, just ten months later, the threat of another storm has brought into stark and disheartening clarity, the fact that the rest of the world has indeed forgotten.

A recent survey conducted by Rebuild 850, an initiative launched shortly after the storm to advocate on behalf of hurricane victims still trying to rebuild their lives, showed nearly half of respondents would do nothing to help people affected by the hurricane and nearly 75 percent said they would not consider donating money to help with relief efforts (FLAPOL, 26 June 2019).

For those outside the region, who mistakenly believe that all is well, the numbers don’t lie, though they are rarely, if ever reported on.

In Mexico Beach, FL, there is still no gas station, no bank, and no grocery store. Eighty percent of the small coastal community was destroyed by Michael. Image by Tony Miller

Since October 10, 2018, affected counties are suffering. Loss of jobs and income, closed and damaged schools, a housing crisis, and increasing uncertainty coupled with the difficulty of navigating the government-aid and insurance bureaucracies have coalesced into massive storms of their own.

Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 storm to hit the United States since Hurricane Andrew, tearing a path through some of the poorest parts of Florida. Insurers report nearly $7 billion in losses across nearly 150,000 claims that have been filed (The Tampa Bay Times, 26 August 2019).

In Mexico Beach, where Michael’s eye passed, virtually obliterating the tiny coastal community, the losses are staggering and rebuilding is slow.

The city’s budget depends on property taxes. But 70 percent of the storm’s 27,000 homes were damaged or completely destroyed by the storm. Before the storm about 1,1000 people lived in Mexico Beach. Now only 400 or so remain. The city doesn’t currently have a gas station or a grocery store (mypanhandle.com, 18 August 2019).

Residents throughout the entire Panhandle region continue to struggle with the after affects of Michael. The emotional trauma of living through a natural disaster of this magnitude and scope have left many in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety.

As Dorian makes his way across the Atlantic, many residents are still living in tents or ruined homes, waiting for contractors or government funds to help them rebuild. Some fear heavier rains attracting black mold, with roofs still covered by tarps that can leak, even with a typical summer’s afternoon thunderstorm. Others are wary about water damage from flooding, as state and municipalities still work to clear debris, or about weakened trees from Michael that might topple in a lesser storm (Miami Herald, 10 July 2019).

Remnants of the destruction unleashed by Hurricane Michael are still plainly visible throughout the Panhandle even ten months later.

In Bay County too, progress is slow and the after effects of Michael are still readily visible. Debris and damaged buildings remain along Highway 98, the main drag, and 5,000 kids are still considered “homeless,” crashing with friends and family or living in FEMA tents and trailers. About 30 percent of the school kids never came back. More than 50 percent of the apartments still are not livable (Fox News, 31 May, 2019).

The sad truth is, that outside of the impacted areas, the rest of the country is oblivious to the continued hardships survivors of Michael face.

And nothing brings that into clarity more glaringly than listening to the media reports on Dorian. In truth, we do not wish the kind of destruction and the hardships we’ve endured since Michael on anyone. And we recognize that we are not the only region of the country to suffer from natural disasters. All we ask is please, just please don’t minimize our struggles or trivialize our survival by continuing to misreport Michael’s destruction and impact.

The forgotten coast we may be, but rest assured, not a single one of us who lived through that day, who continue to exist in the aftermath, will ever forget.

How can we? The destruction is still all around us.

Jennifer N. Fenwick, editor, contributing author, In the Eye of the Storm and the soon to be released, In the Aftermath of the Storm, coming October, 10, 2019.

32 thoughts on “The Forgotten Coast

  1. My sister and I were just talking about this a few days ago, We also lived on a forgotten coast days after Katrina all the focus was on new Orleans, some not even realizing Ms coast line was wiped away people were stranded no food no water no help.. After Michael we were down there trying to help remove trees clear roadways, then it became so political we left after about a month.. I always say prays for Mexico beach, because long after news crews are gone help is gone , your left for years and years trying to put it back.. 14 years since katrina and we are finally back on track..

  2. If you decide to drive to Mexico Beach just to look around, be prepared. There are no gas stations, no public rest rooms, very very few options for food. Then think about the people who still live there, the people who are there everyday working to rebuild and don’t live there. They have a long commute everyday.
    It is still devastating and will be for a long time.

  3. Though a dumb decision in hindsight, I rode out MICHAEL in my Lynn Haven home….my home is still under repair from the damage almost a year later. I am thankful, though, that I had a home left to repair…so many didn’t. I’m also thankful I had the resources to move to another city in Florida…so many didn’t. I remember the tears flowing when the hurricane passed and I finally was able to leave my house only to witness devastation beyond belief. I remember President Trump saying from the main intersection in Lynn Haven “…this will all be cleared in 30 days”. A President’s promise of assistance to come that was not delivered. In regard to political influence to help a devastated and suffering community, I’d like to ask where are Rep. Dunn, Senators Rubio and Scott, Gov. DeSantis…and why is this not still at the top of their list to address the ongoing suffering and economic blight in the region that is the aftermath of Hurricane Michael? Forgotten coast, indeed….forgotten too often even within our own State of Florida. As the President often tweets about other events…”very sad”

    1. I find that no one (in government) is doing much to help residents and business recover from Michael. How much longer can citizens live in these conditions! It will soon be a year!!! I live in Walton County,
      and we are so lucky that we were not in the pathway of that brutal storm! Now the President is taking the funds that were approved for rebuilding Tyndell AFB! It seems that we are going backwards in all areas! I pray that someone with influence will step up and assist the citizens of
      Bay County and the other towns and counties in the surrounding areas that were effected by hurricane Michael! It is way past time to be addressed!

  4. I’m so sorry for all of this, and I thank you for continuing to share your story and the stories of others. Is Rebuild 850 still the best place to donate?

  5. I do hate hearing the media refer to Dorian as if it is “the worst storm in recent history” the sad truth about that is it’s all a publicity/money game for media. They will milk any storm and coverage of damage and suffering for ratings and then once their viewer numbers start to drop, they are on to the next thing. When the media leaves, the attention leaves and so does the money, sympathy, support. Sadly, the same thing will happen with Dorian that happened with Michael.

    1. It’s a shame it has to be that way. But at the very least, they could double check their facts before reporting. Especially since people outside the affected areas take their remarks at face value. Due diligence is important, after all.

  6. We came to PCB for vacation in June as we ALWAYS do. It is our place, where we come as a family to relax and enjoy our beloved gulf. It is the best support that we, who live hundreds of miles away, can give. Our vacation dollars, our prayers and our best wishes.

  7. It’s true. This area was destroyed and is still in bad shape. The simple facts is no area would recover from a storm of this magnitude quickly. Has anyone been to Homestead FL lately? There are still concrete slabs where houses used to be. Hurricane Andrew was 22 years ago! I live here and I do see progress, but it will never be like it was prior to Michael. The area will recover and what does come back will be better than before. Our area leaders have a clean slate to rebuild. My hope is they make the right decisions to come back stronger than ever.

    1. It’s the same with the Keys when they were hit a few years ago. A year later I was down there and life had moved on as usual, but you could see the damage all around. The internal stress on people when this type of thing happens is unmeasurable. And I know a large part of the population that doesn’t live near the water thinks everyone should be prepared and that’s what you get for living in paradise. They have no idea, no idea. Some one lives in a house all their life or inherits a house, they can’t afford ins, but it is their home and then it’s gone. We waist so much money in this country. Why weren’t these people given trailers to live in? So sorry for them.

  8. I lived through it! Today 9/02/2019 I am still living in my camper that I lived in brfore the storm that was a total loss . I am also fixing up a mobile home I bought that was damaged from the storm and people here does not want to help all that want is take your money that you got from SBA and not do the work one you give them money they don’t finish the job.
    I will be 72 years old this month I have to go to someone else’s Home to take a bath and wash clothes I only have electric and no hot water.

    1. I’m so very sorry for your losses and hardships. So many stories like yours. What can we do? What avenues have we not explored? There has got to be a way to fix these horrible situations!

  9. Assuming people in Panama City pay their fair share of taxes, why haven’t local politicians and City government officials ensured this This City is restored? In NYC, where I’ve lived for 36 years, immediate action was taken after Hurricane Sandy (which was only a category 4 hurricane) to restore damage to roads, bridges, streets, business, homes and property destroyed by wind and water. What has NOT happened in Panama City after Hurricane Michael is disgraceful, if not criminal.

    1. Sir you are either a liar or a fool…First, hurricane Sandy was a mere category 1 storm…Michael was category 5 storm….cat 1 knocks tree branches down and cat 5 knocks the majority of houses down….in the words of NOAA , cat 1 produces mild damage while cat 5 produces CATASTROPHIC damage…your city was put back together so soon, because there was “mild” damage, not because your politicians are brilliant …..you have no idea about the damage a cat 5 produces until you see it in person….all the pictures in the world could never convey the damage we suffered and the suffering that continues…America used to back each other as country and look after each other…not anymore….so Sir I say to you, sit down and shut up, to quote your former President….you are ignorant at best and evil at worst with your comments….

      1. Its definitely not a competition but the devastating fires in CA sort of deflated the momentum for helping Michael victims, sad to say, in my humble opinion. Hurricane Michael has sort of faded away in americans’ minds just as Maria did. So will Dorian. At least here in Florida we can reasonably access resources by way of driving, which island victims of Irma, Maria and Dorian cannot do. I do hold the TV 24 hour news channels media accountable to a certain extent. They control everything from a getting the word out perspective. I was just in Mexico Beach this weekend and although it is grim, I felt hopeful as I drove through. I live 20 minutes from there.

      2. Remaining hopeful is the biggest part of recovery. And I agree with your assessments. My heart breaks for the Bahamas. They will have a much more difficult road ahead without resources and access to the mainland as we in Florida have. All natural disasters cause suffering and none eclipse the others. It’s something you really don’t understand until you experience it firsthand. I am grateful to all for the support and prayers we have received. It’s truly a humbling experience. One we can all learn and grow from.

    2. I think part of the problem lies in the perception the rest of the country has of our area being mostly rural and therefore the damage was minimal. Most visitors to the area come for the beach and Panama City Beach sustained minimal damage. They depart without ever driving into Panama City so they’ve no idea the level of destruction to the east. It’s sad, but true. We’re a hearty people though, and I’m proud of how far we’ve come, though we still have miles to go. Right now, we’re all praying that Hurricane Dorian makes that northern turn and stays away from the coast.

  10. A few miles away, another prison employee, Crystal Minton, accompanied her fiancé to a friend’s house to help clear the remnants of a metal roof mangled by the hurricane. Ms. Minton, a 38-year-old secretary, said she had obtained permission from the warden to put off her Mississippi duty until early February because she is a single mother caring for disabled parents. Her fiancé plans to take vacation days to look after Ms. Minton’s 7-year-old twins once she has to go to work.

    The shutdown on top of the hurricane has caused Ms. Minton to rethink a lot of things.

    “I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this,” she said of Mr. Trump. “I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.

    1. My sister-in-law had to relocate with her family following the shutdown. She, my brother-in-law and their five children lost everything in the storm. I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories like this. I’ve lived them myself. Thank you for sharing.

  11. i’m a resident that lives in enterprise Alabama and have driven down through the panhandle several times since hurricane Michael .I am a palled by what I still see and I have to ask myself how can people begin to recover when you still see all the destruction around them . I agree with the writing of this article areas that were hit by Michael have been forgotten . We have a local business here in enterprise Alabama Annies out reach and they’re still doing fundraisers for the residence down there and I think more people need to help because the distraction is real and the recovery is long . I just don’t understand how you can have hope when you still see road signs on major roadways that are knocked down ,debris still littering it streets on major roadways how can you have hope out of that ?

    1. Thank you for your efforts on our behalf. I was born and raised here, and aside from college, have lived here my entire life. My family has lived here since the 1940’s. Never did we anticipate surviving and living through a storm of this magnitude. But I tell you this, Hope and Faith have been the cornerstones of our survival, and the foundations of our recovery. They have to be.

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