The last time Bay County Emergency Operations Chief Mark Bowen talked to fellow emergency workers in the outside world before ferocious Hurricane Michael cut off contact, he made a final plea:
“Send everything you can.”
Nearly two months later, and with the hurricane season finally coming to an end today, Panama City, Mexico Beach and other parts of the Panhandle slammed by the strongest storm on record to hit the region are still scrambling to recover.
With 60 percent of the homes in Panama City alone destroyed, housing is squeezed dry. Only 40 FEMA trailers have so far been erected, although about 1,500 have been approved in areas hit by the storm. Two regional hospitals remain largely shuttered and nursing homes and rehab centers closed. With half the schools damaged, students share campuses on split schedules. The youngest start as early as 6 a.m. Cable and internet service is still mostly down.
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In Panama City, enough trash has been hauled away to equal what the city normally produces in 12 years — and it’s less than half of what still needs to be cleared, said Mayor Greg Brudnicki. The city’s goal: have roads or alleys cleared to every house at least by Christmas.
“We got carpet-bombed here,” he said. “Very few places went unscathed. If they did, it was a miracle.”
Brudnicki now fears the region’s plight may fade from headlines.
“You have around 60 disasters a year and that’s like one every five days, so it doesn’t take long to be supplanted by something else,” he said “Our goal is to make sure that people know we’re still in a state of emergency.”
While permanent fixes are still a long way off, federal emergency managers say they are making progress on providing temporary relief. They’ve handed out $113.8 million in assistance, with $75.3 million of that going to residents in Bay County, said Federal Emergency Management Administration spokesman Ruben Brown. The agency has also paid $95.5 million in flood insurance claims to insured homeowners. But with 55,000 requests for help from Bay County alone, he said case workers are keenly aware of the area’s sizable needs.
“It’s not one size fits all,” Brown said. “The options we offer are based on case-by-case and suited to meet individual families.”
The agency is now in the midst of inspecting and clearing the way for more temporary trailers, which it considers a last resort. Brown expects the number to sharply rise in the coming days. But he warns assistance — the deadline to register is Dec. 10 — is just that: a helping hand and not a full recovery.
“FEMA is not going to make survivors whole. We won’t be able to bring them back to pre-disaster conditions. But hopefully we can find safe, functional and sanitary places to live,” he said. “What it took mother nature a few hours to destroy, it will take years to rebuild.”
No where is that more painfully clear than in a cluster of tents in a parking lot outside a Methodist Church in Panama City, where about 200 people live in what’s become an unofficial disaster relief zone, including a handful of children. Another smaller camp has popped up in Callaway, a small town to the east that is home to working class and military families.
While many of the campers are out-of-town workers or volunteers who couldn’t find hotel rooms, others say they fled destroyed mobile homes or arrived after shelters closed. One shelter remains open at a high school in Panama City Beach.
Nearly every tent is draped in a blue tarp, like the kind that dot nearby roofs. A few RVs are also parked in the camp, which hums with generators, although not enough for everyone.
Robert Snow and Rebecca Kirkman rummaged for clothes in a stack of boxes piled high one morning this week. With no place to launder clothes or shower, some campers have taken to throwing away dirty clothes and searching the piles for something clean to wear, they said.
“We’re stuck between a rock and a hard spot,” said Kirkman, 33.
“Some of us are just trying to survive,” added Snow, 48.
Allison Powell said she and her husband wound up camping in the church parking lot after moving from another camp after Michael destroyed their mobile home in Callaway.
“There’s nothing left there,” Allison Powell said as she and her husband waited in a line for hot chocolate. “If it wasn’t for places like this, we wouldn’t eat.”
James Oliver, 58, said he pitched his tent after driving down from North Dakota to work on a home repair crew and found hotels charging $150 a night. The crew included another worker from North Carolina and a third from Jacksonville.
Another construction worker at the camp, John Stuart, was already in Panama City when Michael struck and left him stranded, he said. He now can’t afford to pay for the gas he needs to drive to his parents’ home in Michigan. Many residents in the camp, he said, have been unable to obtain housing assistance because they lack documentation to prove where they lived before the storm.
“You have no receipts, so you’re out of luck,” he said.
Many in the camp are not homeless, insisted Stuart, who grew up in Brevard County.
“They’re just working,” he said. “But every little hotel in this area, even hotels the hookers wouldn’t go into, are charging $150 a night right now.”
Before officials shut down the camp on Dec. 10, Brudnicki said every camper will be interviewed for housing eligibility. But he said those who were homeless before the storm won’t be eligible. While the government will try to help, FEMA is not intended to fix homelessness, he said..
“You’ll qualify for something or you’ll have to move on,” he said. “There is no camping in the city. I’ve got extra people living in my house right now and there’s a lot of bunking up. It’s neighbors helping neighbors, and if you’re not from here, you need to go.”
The city and county are also working to clear roadblocks that might slow FEMA, he said. The city hired an outside contractor to insure its paperwork is complete and it gets reimbursed, although Brudnicki expects the city to still have to carry $50 million to $100 million in costs. Debris removal alone, which FEMA covers, could cost $250 million, he said.
The county is also trying to ensure locations for trailers are cleared of debris and utilities working so the sites pass inspections.
“The burden of getting one of these trailers was surprising to me and I’m an emergency manager,” Bowen said. “So we’re just trying to do what we can so that we’re not part of the molasses of somebody trying to get in a trailer.”
Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis has also warned insurance agencies to do a better job of assisting homeowners after a spike in complaints. According to the Insurance Journal, Patronis warmed more than 40 companies on a conference call earlier this month that they were lagging behind, with just over half of more than 125,000 claims closed.
In the mean time, two long-term issues remain: permanent housing and medical care. Rental units are still available, Bowen said. But because many are vacation properties that draw higher prices, the county may try to convince FEMA to up housing allowances, he said.
Two regional hospitals that served the area are also largely closed or full, Brudnicki said, meaning patients have to be shipped many miles away for care, some as far as Mobile.
“Just think: you go in and get triaged, and then you have to be sent somewhere else,” he said. “It’s getting better, but it’s still a state of emergency.”
Nearly every street in Panama City, the busiest hub of the Emerald Coast, still shows signs of damage. But even with the dismal landscape, residents say they are intent on rebuilding.
“Panama City’s not a high-income town,” said Michael Nordness, 33, who was working to repair a property owned by his brother-in-law along U.S. 98, the coastal highway that connects communities and crosses into Panama City Beach, which was largely spared. Nordness used to teach kayaking and paddle board. Since the storm, he’s been logging 60-hour weeks helping family rebuild.
“Everyone’s busting their ass, everywhere, to rebuild,” he said.
FEMA is also hoping to entice a locals to apply for work as part of a job hiring campaign to fill temporary three-month positions that pay up to $28 an hour.
“It’s a win-win because not only are we hiring people who may need employment, but we’re also infusing assets back into the community,” Brown said. “These are survivors who can go out and help other survivors.”
More information can be found at usajobs.gov by searching for Florida and FEMA.
And that self-reliance is what government officials say could be the region’s saving grace.
“This is a county where, by and large, the population is very self sufficient,” Bowen said. “Many people just have this notion that you don’t depend on government. That you do it yourself.”