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Tallahassee Democrat: 'Collectively we've forgotten them': Hurricane Michael survivors hanging on

PANAMA CITY – A year after Hurricane Michael struck North Florida, thousands of Panhandle residents still live in tents, trailers and hotel rooms, homeowners continue to fight their insurance companies over repairs, and children attend school in portable classrooms, flinching every time it thunders.

Michael struck Mexico Beach with 155 mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge that swamped beachfront houses and businesses, flattening the gulf resort town. It plowed through the center of the sparsely populated rural Panhandle region of about 330,000 residents, cutting a 30- to 40-mile-wide swath between Panama City and Port St. Joe all the way to Georgia, pulverizing small towns and chewing up billions of dollars in timber, cotton and peanuts.

It caused $25 billion in damage, including $3 billion in agricultural losses and $16.5 billion in property losses in Florida alone. Just about every standing structure was damaged to some degree, and affordable housing, already a problem before the storm, became nonexistent.

Folks on Florida’s Forgotten Coast fear the media and the nation have moved on from Michael. Worse, they feel abandoned by a government they came to count on in times of need following a major natural disaster. 

Even President Trump, who was elected with the help of this heavily red-leaning region, said he was not sure he had ever heard of a Category 5 hurricane when Dorian was bearing down on the Bahamas, 11 months after Michael had wiped Mexico Beach off the map.

“Collectively we’ve forgotten them,” said Florida Sen. Bill Montford, a former Leon County high school principal and school superintendent who grew up in Blountstown. “Our memory is shorter than the impact of that storm, and that’s what we’re facing. For us it’s very personal. When you are living in a tent, when you are hungry, a month is a very long time. After eight months people start to lose their patience.”

The aid money isn't flowing

As Montford frequently likes to remind folks at town hall meetings and legislative committee hearings, eight months is how long it took for Congress to approve a $19 billion emergency disaster relief aid package for several national disasters since 2017, including Michael.

It’s intended to supplement the $1.9 billion in funding already obligated by FEMA and other federal agencies for people in the 12 counties clobbered by Michael – a fraction of the total $16.5 billion in both insured and uninsured property losses.

It isn’t as if FEMA officials are standing on street corners handing out checks and money orders. Governments have to spend money to get money. People have to apply for grants and loans, and often as not, don’t qualify or get rejected.

“There’s a lot of needs in this county,” Calhoun County Commission Chairman Gene Bailey said at a town hall meeting held in the county courthouse basement. 

He appreciates what help the county has received, especially for debris removal. “But I get tired of hearing people ask what is the board doing with the $500,000 or that $2 million when we haven’t gotten it yet. The reality is we’ve only received $125,000. We need that money and we need it bad.”

Officials from Panama City to Marianna echo Bailey’s complaints.

Small towns don’t have the money to pay for debris removal and essential basic repairs up front, while others said they don’t expect to be reimbursed for years.

What money they have seen is stabilization money from FEMA, and not the recovery money approved by Congress in July, said Leon County Commissioner Kristin Dozier.

“The recovery dollars haven’t even begun yet,” she said.

Bay County Schools racked up $400 million in damage and lost materials and a $100 million insurance policy, officials there said. They need to find $300 million. They scrounged $40 million together to start paying for the most basic repairs, and spread polymer material over most of its roofs as a stopgap measure until it gets more money.

FEMA this week announced a $4 million reimbursement to pay for the 154 portable classrooms and four temporary restrooms at seven schools.

The city of Lynn Haven north of Panama City got nearly $5 million from FEMA to pay for almost half the estimated $9.9 million it cost for debris removal. The city is expected to come up with the remaining cost.

The storm strain on local budgets

At the same time they face an ever-increasing price tag for stabilization and recovery, local governments are losing millions of revenue due to loss of property values, utility customers that have disappeared, and sales revenue from businesses that haven’t reopened.

Port St Joe Gas Company lost 20-25 percent of their customers, said Rep. Jason Shoaf, who is vice president of the gas company. 

Marianna lost 150 utility customers and $12 million on real estate, which meant a sizable drop in revenue and ad valorem taxes, said Matt Fuqua, a private attorney who represents Marianna and other cities hit by the storm.

Kristy Terry, executive director of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, said they’re not getting money at the local level because rules haven't been written for their disbursement.

“We have to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps,” Terry said. “Local agencies are stepping in to fill the gaps. It’s disheartening to see government not helping like you expected.”

Bay County was able to float a bond for repairs, she said, but smaller counties like Liberty and Calhoun don’t have that ability. They had to rely on the state to step in and take care of debris removal, for example. 

“Can’t start fixing things and getting reimbursed if we don’t have money in the first place,” Terry said.

Cities rarely have cash on hand to front the cost of repairs, emergency services and debris removal that will later be reimbursed by FEMA, said Shelby Hodgkins, a spokeswoman for Congressman Neal Dunn, R-Panama City. 

Change in federal law is needed to help victims of Hurricane Michael, including tax relief and Dunn’s bill creating opportunity zones for the housing crisis, Hodgkins said.

“Some cities and counties had to take out very large loans to get them through. We are looking at ways to help cover those costs and we are working on legislation to help alleviate some of those issues.”

The financial strain has already forced Mexico Beach to vote to disband its police department and contract with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement protection.

A week after the vote, Gov. DeSantis and the Division of Emergency Management promptly stepped in with a $1.1 million grant to help the city pay for police and fire protection.

“The strain on local budgets we saw after Hurricane Michael, especially in fiscally constrained areas like Mexico Beach, was something our state had never experienced before, which is why today’s announcement is absolutely critical for their recovery,” said FDEM Director Jared Moskowitz.

Apocalyptic scenes frozen in time 

There is still an apocalyptic feel to some hard-hit locations that appear trapped in time. Blue tarps are rotting over unrepaired houses. Trees are still resting on rooftops. Church steeples are still missing. Gas station canopies are twisted metal modern art sculpted by the wind. Plywood boards cover the great plate glass picture windows of downtown stores. Entire shopping malls are deserted.

Blountstown’s historic courthouse still has a blue tarp on its roof, the city’s police headquarters still abandoned. 

Crumbled walls and vacant lots are all that remain of office buildings in Marianna, its county buildings still waiting for repairs. 

The First Baptist Church in Port St. Joe still has exposed roof beams, never to be repaired. Downtown shops have yet to clear the debris out of their interiors. 

Panama City Mall is closed except for Dillard’s, J.C. Penney, Planet Fitness and the movie theater – the only one left in town. All three Burger King locations were wiped out.

It’s depressing, it wears on people’s psyches to live with this damage day in and day out without any visible change or progress. At least the debris has been removed, people say. For the most part, anyway.

And then there are the trees.

An economy toppled with the trees

Trees remain snapped at the waist or pushed over at an angle from the hurricane’s winds. Dead trees are still on the ground, stands of timber that were going to be someone’s retirement income or children’s college fund are gone.

Those destroyed trees represent a major gut punch to the region’s agricultural-based economy, Montford said. The Panhandle was in bad enough shape before the hurricane, Montford said, but now it’s even worse. Montford himself has a tract of timber in Liberty County.

“Before the storm there were 300 million green standing tons of timber,” said Daniel Stanley of Twin Rivers Land and Timber at a town hall meeting in Bristol in early September. He and his wife own 70 acres of timber. “The Florida Forest Service estimated about 70 million tons were flattened by Michael, disease took another 30 million. So about a third of our timber crop was destroyed.”

People are harvesting for negligible value – and there’s no such thing as crop insurance for timber, Stanley added. Local mills are closed and the demand for timber has fallen off.

The cost of replacing all that timber is estimated at $240 million. It costs thousands of dollars to clear an acre, prep the soil and reseed it, more than most people can afford, Stanley said.

What used to cost $500 an acre to seed now costs $1,500 to $2,000 or more, he said.

Officials estimated it would take $240 million to replace all the lost timber, which would not provide income for 15-20 years.

“It’s been months and we have nothing,” said Ed Swindle, one of the biggest landowners in the region. “There is no end in sight.”

Agriculture is the backbone of the economy here, Montford said. The only two bigger employers are the school districts and the state prison system.

Thirty-seven percent of rural counties had fewer jobs today than five years ago, he said, while the rest of the state saw job growth. 

“We were hurting before the hurricane and now we are on life support," Montford said. 

'We're in trouble': A workforce waylaid

The region is experiencing a workforce shortage, even though state numbers don’t reflect it, said Richard Williams, executive director of CareerSource, a rural economic development organization that covers Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties.

“Models just don’t account for hurricane impact, because the models are based on historical data,” he said. “A lack of people with trade skills are holding us back from recovery.”

There are jobs for unskilled workers, but no place for them to live on the kind of wages fast food restaurants pay.

“We’re in trouble,” Williams said. “This area didn’t bounce back (from the recession) until right before the hurricane. Then the hurricane hit. We were already hit hard on the housing issue.”

Nowadays you see people sleeping on the porch of a destroyed home with the kids in a tent, he said. Or you find people in the woods in damaged trailers, using a cattle trough to bathe in.

Folks have moved in from the coast where the housing situation is worse, he said, and drive back to the coast for work. Inland folks have moved further inland to Georgia and Alabama, he said.

The few licensed contractors are in demand, keeping busy going from job to job.

“I have a lot of customers waiting for money. Some have money in the bank, and are waiting for me to have time to come around,” said Daniel Silbaugh, an electrical contractor working on repairs at the EZ Lane convenience store in Lynn Haven. 

“Everybody in this town got damaged,” he said. “I have damage at my house I still haven’t dealt with. I got the tree off my roof, but I still have to put on a new roof, insulation, a new ceiling, A/C and duct work. But I don’t have time to do that right now.”

Bay County school officials said they can’t recruit teachers at $41,000 a year jobs because the rent on what remaining housing stock is available has gone from $800 a month to $2,500 a month.

Fright flight and a mental health crisis in schools

The situation is so bad that thousands have packed up and left the region for good.

Bill Husfelt, superintendent of schools for Bay County, saw 4,500 students leave the area, many of them from low-income homes. 

“We lost 16 Title I schools on our side of the county,” he said. “We lost 25 percent of their population just like that.”

Because so many apartment buildings were destroyed, FEMA gave families money to move, he said. They scattered to Orlando, Pensacola, New Orleans, and elsewhere, he said.

The state gave Bay County $12 million to make up for the loss of students.

“We’re very grateful but our problem is long-term,” he said. “Our two biggest problems are mental health and housing, and they go hand in hand.”

In Panama City, 20 percent of the homes and apartments are unlivable, he said.

According to state insurance officials, some 150,000 policy holders filed $7 billion in claims, of which 18,000 claims remain open. It's estimated that 190,000 structures in the affected area were damaged.

In Calhoun County, 22 percent of residents cannot live in their homes, Kristy Terry said. More than 40 percent of people’s homes are covered by blue tarps and 54 percent reported counseling. 

“Things are not getting better for individuals. they are beginning to struggle in ways they weren’t six months ago,” Terry said.

Throughout the affected area, at least 10 percent of school children are classified as homeless, their original homes destroyed or damaged so badly they are unlivable, or they are displaced, living with relatives or friends, or living in substandard conditions.

Before the storm, Bay County Schools had 720 students classified as homeless or displaced. After the storm that number leaped to 5,700 and remained that way until the end of the school year, Husfelt said. That's 13 percent of the school population.

Six weeks into the new school year, and that number is already at around 2,500 students, officials said.

The number of students receiving counseling and getting involuntarily admitted for observation has leaped, too. Before the storm they could expect 20 to 30 Baker Act cases in the entire school year. From October 10 to May 28, that number was 122.

“We’ve got over 40 in first six weeks of school,” Husfelt said. “Our rate is higher now than immediately after the storm."

The number of students Baker Acted has since hit 50. The number seeking crisis intervention services since the beginning of the year is 222, said Donna Pilson, executive director of Rebuild Bay County, an agency created after Hurricane Michael struck to coordinate critical services to people in need.

At the end of the school year, 300 kids were on a waiting list for mental health services, said Sharon Michalik, director of communications for Bay County Schools.

According to the Department of Children and Families Northwest Florida district, Life Management Center in Panama City saw a 19 percent increase in crisis intervention services after the storm. About half of those 803 interventions were under 18.

It all ties back to housing. 

“It’s so obvious when many of the problems are because families are stacked, living on top of each other in campers, the stress of the financial conditions they are living in,” Husfelt said. “The challenges or problems don’t stop. In reality, problems won’t be solved until housing comes back.”

And that is going to take years.

All around Bay County, large apartment complexes are condemned. If not condemned, they are gutted and in need of major repair.

“People have no idea what it’s like,” Husfelt said. “Our challenges are so deep and so numerous ...”

Teachers come to school and have to deal with the crises each of their students are going through, he said. And they get to go home to deal with their insurance company or contractor.

“The mental capacity to deal with what we’re dealing with is overwhelming,” he said. 

'Circling disillusionment' and donor fatigue

Hurricane Michael was pancaked between floods in the Carolinas caused by Hurricane Florence a month earlier, followed by wildfires in California.

“A lot was going on and people’s long-term memories aren’t good,” Husfelt said. “They come here and ask what happened here.”

If the storm had hit Central Florida, he said, a special session would have been called.

“Because we’re rural most people didn’t see us as a priority,” he said.

The superintendent echoes the feeling expressed by many others that they’re on their own and have to dig themselves out of the disaster. 

“A lot has been accomplished in a year, but people are frustrated by the slow speed,” Husfelt said. “And we’re appreciative. We‘re a very resilient community, we’ve done a lot on our own and have come a long way.”

Bay County and the rest of the Panhandle is the victim of donor fatigue, said Rachal Smoker, who with Michalik created Rachal’s Recovery Relief to deal with the homeless people still living in tents and in trailers.

Hurricane Michael has received one-third of what the Red Cross received for Harvey in 2017 and Florence last year, she said.

“These organizations don’t have the money to help. They’re not here because they are not getting money specifically for the storm,” she said.

It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. The Panhandle had wind damage, not the same type of dramatic flooding that news outlets beamed out of Houston and the Carolinas.

“When you can’t see it, it isn’t news anymore,” she said.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Denise Kelley holds up a fever chart that shows the emotional highs and lows associated with a major disaster – the pre-disaster warnings and threats, the scary impact when the storm’s eye passes through, the heroic period when people are running around with chainsaws clearing roads and removing limbs and tarping roofs, the honeymoon period when the community comes together as one.

They’ve been through all that, and now they are staring into an abyss as the community approaches the anniversary. It’s the period right before reconstruction, a new era when people finally come to terms with the new reality, work through their grief and move forward.

“We are still circling disillusionment, because people still can’t get basic needs met,” Kelley said. “People can’t get mental health needs addressed when they are still struggling for shelter, safety, food and diapers.”

'Kernels of hope' and a search for normalcy

Michalik said they are trying to focus on what she calls “kernels of hope,” those bright moments when someone’s roof gets repaired, or an unexpected donation comes in.

Her mood changes when she brings up a recent donation of 4,000 pairs of shoes from Jo Jo Shoes and setting up a “Small Mart” in a school to distribute them. 

But she gets choked up thinking about all the lost time – all the projects the city could have accomplished if it wasn’t meeting basic needs a year later.

“It’s the same as it was 11 months ago,” Smoker said. “At least we don’t have any debris. But things are not back to normal.”

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