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One Year Later: Florida Panhandle struggles to recover from Hurricane Michael

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- The catastrophic damage caused by category 5 Hurricane Michael on October 10, 2018 is still visible one year later.

Local residents like Curtis and Rhonda Hawley are still dealing with homes that are missing walls and have bare concrete for floors.

“Six hours changed our world. Changed our lives. We’ll never be the same,” Curtis Hawley said. “Now we’re trying to find a plumber, trying to find an electrician, cabinetry, flooring. There’s still so much to do.”

About 34,000 homes in Bay County sustained damage, but county officials have only issued 17,000 building permits since last October.

“We are much further ahead at this point than I expected us to be at this point,” said Bob Majka, the county manager for Bay County.

The large majority of the debris is finally gone. Workers removed nearly 17 million cubic yards of debris from all of the county’s right of ways – a little more than 3 million from Panama City alone.

“This debris removal operation that cities and the counties are participating in, it’s the largest single civilian operated debris removal program in the history of the U.S.,” Majka said.

Residents, business owners and others are still fighting with insurance companies, hoping they will honor their word or that a judge will force the companies to honor their insurance policies.

“Insurance has been a nightmare,” Rhonda Hawley. “We had to get a lawyer for our insurance company.  So, even though they gave us a small amount of money, it’s not enough to repair our home.”

For some, the only way to describe the storm is to compare it to a war.

“It looked like the place was carpet-bombed,” said Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki.

But in the wake of the destruction, heroes emerged. John Newcomb of Honest John’s Electrical helped restore power to about 300 Panama City homeowners. And he did it free of charge.

“When the storm hit, and I could help these people, I knew we were at the right place,” he said. “You know, you just gotta lace up your boots and go and do everything that you can to help get these people back, and that’s what we did.”

Now that the initial recovery is over the city is focused on addressing damaged and abandoned properties. On October 11, city officials will start citing owners who are not actively working to make repairs.

“If you don’t do it, we’re gonna do it, and if we do it, we are going to take that amount and we’re going to add it to your property tax bill,” Brudnicki said.

The city is also looking to transform the downtown area in hopes of creating a new community for residents, shoppers and tourists. They are looking for more than a million dollars in funding from state and federal funding grants.

“We know what kind of funding we’re gonna have coming in and some sacrifices of things we are going to have to do.  Like we might have to take out bonds to be able to pay for things.  But we have to progress and, as the funding comes in, we can pay that off,” said City Commissioner Jenna Haligas.

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MEXICO BEACH HAMMERED HARD

The quiet seaside town of Mexico Beach became ground zero for Hurricane Michael. As the storm approached the city’s police department went door-to-door in hopes of convincing residents to evacuate.

“We had just under 300 people that wanted to stay. Twenty-four hours before the impact of the storm, it was down to 100,” said Mexico Beach Police Chief Anthony Kelly.

Donald Martin Blood II was one of the few who stayed and lived to tell the tale.

“That’s when things went crazy. It was like a whiteout. It started blowing the other direction right off the water and you couldn’t even see across the street anymore and water started to come in the house,” he said.

The storm damaged more than 70 percent of the city’s structures and the population has dwindled from 1,100 residents to less than 500. When it was over, those who remained tried to help one another. Kyle Rigsby, an electrician and homeowner, hot-wired a city owned backhoe and began clearing the streets and helping his neighbors.

A year later and city officials say they have finally removed the debris. The city is still years away from anything resembling a recovery. But locals say the storm didn’t just transform the landscape, it transformed their hearts.

“It changes the perspective of life entirely, you appreciate the little things more,” Kelly said.

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AIR FORCE BASE DEVASTATED

Tyndall Air Force Base, located just west of Mexico Beach, was also flattened by Hurricane Michael. Every single building on the base suffered damage.

“As we looked around, the first thought we had was, ‘were glad we got the people off of the base’.  And the second thought was, ‘we’re going to have a lot of work to do,'” said Col. Brian Laidlaw, 325th Fighter Wing Commander.

That work was stalled for months as Republicans and Democrats fought over funding priorities. Once the money arrived the commanders began focusing on the job ahead.

“I think in ’83 was the last time that we sort of built a base from scratch, and that is effectively what we are doing,” said Brig. Gen. Patrice Melancon, reconstruction program executive director. “We are rebuilding the base to be a digitally connected, installation of the future, it’s going to be a model for other Air Force bases.”

The crown jewel of the rebuilt base will be three F-35 squadrons, the first of which is supposed to arrive in October of 2023.

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SMALLER COMMUNITIES IMPACTED

As Hurricane Michael swept north, it caused serious damage in Jackson County and had a major impact on the 50,000 people who live there.

“I think that in a lot of ways we’re different because we’re stronger and we know that we could do it again,” said County Administrator Willane Daniels.

The county had 32 million dollars in damage and is now operating under a 5-to-10-year recovery plan.

“The Commissioners have their focus often on roads, they want better quality of life for the citizens whether that be paving projects or whatever.  So, we will be looking for all grant funding capability for that,” Daniels said.

County officials are also focused on housing and on turning the former Dozier School for Boys property into an economic hub with residential housing.

“Don’t get down, Jackson County’s gonna come back probably better, in the next probably five to 10 years you are gonna see a Jackson County that is so beautiful that everybody in the United States is gonna want to come here.” said Rodney Andreasen, Jackson County’s Emergency Operations Director.

Jackson County has seen growth in residential housing partly because the apartments and homes Bay County residents depended on were destroyed. As the apartments came back residents found their rents rising and, in some cases, doubling.

“A one-bedroom that was $700 before the storm now is $1200 after the storm, that don’t make no sense,” said resident Daniel Marlow.

More than 500 people are living in housing provided by FEMA. However, that housing will be shuttered in April of 2020. Meanwhile, restaurants and other businesses are struggling to find workers. Many can’t afford to live in Bay County under the wages provided at most businesses.

Thankfully, this won’t last real estate experts say.

“I think over the next six months to a year, we will normalize the pricing in Bay County,” said Tom Neubauer, a local real estate agent. “A lot of companies have jumped in, apartment builders with several large projects actually in the pipeline already.”

One of the largest businesses in the area, the St. Joe Company, is committed to helping the community recover.

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“It just takes time to develop all the infrastructure properly,” said Jorge Gonzalez, the president and CEO of the St. Joe Company. “As you see new product come into the market, again it will balance out as it should.  Maybe not to where it was, but certainly much better than it is now.”

The housing crisis is far from the only problem facing the local area.  School officials are struggling with a mental health crisis as they try to solve a teacher shortage and meet the needs of their students. Many of those students are still essentially homeless.

“They (the students) inspire me and they give me hope because they do recover and bounce back from things so quickly,” said Arnold High School teacher Cathleen McNulty Mann.

And while progress has been made, a full recovery is still far in the future.

“I’d say three years before you really notice significant changes,” said Superintendent Bill Husfelt. “I mean the spectrum is just all over the place. And, of course, every roof in the whole county almost needs to be redone.”

And while the buildings can be repaired, the mental scars remain.

“I think, mentally, thunderstorm comes and everybody’s just afraid, including myself,” said J Dia Green-Jones, an Arnold teacher.

People who live in Florida’s Panhandle know things won’t be the same as they were before Hurricane Michael. While a long road to recovery remains, residents are hopeful – promising to rebuild, recover and craft a community that’s even better than it was before the monster storm. That’s the essence of being Panhandle Strong.

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