Sur­vivors of Hur­ri­cane Michael fear Florida’s Pan­han­dle has been for­got­ten

The Buffalo News - - NATIONAL NEWS - By Pa­tri­cia Sullivan and Joel Achenbach

MEX­ICO BEACH, Fla. – The tow­er­ing de­bris piles that lined High­way 98 are gone now, six months af­ter the 16-foot storm surge from Hur­ri­cane Michael pul­ver­ized this town. But smaller berms of waste re­main: con­crete blocks, re­bar, pipes and planks, mounded like ar­ti­fi­cial dunes on the side of the road.

The land­scape is still scraped to bare sand and dirt, de­nuded of trees and plants. The few long­time res­i­dents who re­main talk about los­ing their way be­cause they have no land­marks. The oc­ca­sional tourist passes through, as­ton­ished by the lin­ger­ing de­struc­tion from the storm, which made land­fall on Oct. 10.

“You kind of want to be­lieve it’s all OK now,” said Priscilla Moore, 51, of Pow­der Springs, Ga., who has va­ca­tioned here for 47 years. “But oh my good­ness, it’s gone, it’s just all gone.”

The stretch of the Florida Pan­han­dle east of Panama City is known as the For­got­ten Coast, be­cause it’s so ru­ral and un­de­vel­oped – a rem­nant of a wild, pre-Disney, pre-air-con­di­tioned Florida. That moniker has be­come more sear­ing in the af­ter­math of the fourth-strong­est hur­ri­cane ever to hit the main­land United States.

Gov­ern­ment agen­cies have cleared the roads and utilities have re­stored power, water and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, but thou­sands of peo­ple are still des­per­ate for per­ma­nent hous­ing, com­pet­ing not only with one another for the scarce sup­ply of rental units, but with con­struc­tion work­ers who have come into the area. Many res­i­dents are liv­ing in dam­aged homes or trail­ers un­fit for hu­man habi­ta­tion. Some live in tents. Home­own­ers are frus­trated by stingy in­sur­ance com­pa­nies and be­wil­der­ing gov­ern­ment pa­per­work, and they’re wary of shady con­trac­tors.

In in­land Mar­i­anna, the fed­eral prison with its 500-per­son pay­roll is all but closed, its in­mates and em­ploy­ees moved to other fed­eral fa­cil­i­ties. The state’s in­sti­tu­tion for the de­vel­op­men­tally de­layed, which serves 250 clients, is just get­ting its de­bris picked up, said Jim Dean, the city man­ager.

Res­i­dents here won­der if their fel­low Amer­i­cans un­der­stand their on­go­ing strug­gle. Char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions flow­ing into the area have been mod­est. The Amer­i­can Red Cross cal­cu­lated that des­ig­nated do­na­tions for Hur­ri­cane Michael vic­tims to­taled $35 mil­lion through the end of March. Hur­ri­cane Florence, which hit the Caroli­nas one month ear­lier, drew $64.3 mil­lion. Hur­ri­cane Irma, which made land­fall near Naples, Fla., a year ear­lier, prompted $97 mil­lion in giv­ing.

Michael caused 49 deaths and more than $5.5 bil­lion in dam­age. Work crews have re­moved 31 mil­lion cu­bic yards of de­bris in Florida left by Hur­ri­cane Michael, com­pared with 3 mil­lion for Hur­ri­cane Irma, a much broader storm that af­fected the en­tire penin­sula in 2017, ac­cord­ing to T.J. Dar­gan, deputy fed­eral co­or­di­nat­ing of­fi­cer for the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency’s Hur­ri­cane Michael re­sponse and re­cov­ery ef­fort.

Be­cause Michael hap­pened so fast – slam­ming the Pan­han­dle just 73 hours af­ter it be­came a named trop­i­cal storm – and af­fected rel­a­tively few peo­ple in a ru­ral cor­ner of the Deep South, the storm was over­shad­owed by other dis­as­ters. It was squeezed be­tween the floods that con­sumed North Carolina af­ter Hur­ri­cane Florence in Septem­ber and the wild­fires that dev­as­tated North­ern Cal­i­for­nia in Novem­ber. “To some de­gree it never re­ally pen­e­trated the Amer­i­can psy­che,” Dar­gan said.

FEMA said it has poured $1.1 bil­lion into Florida in Michael-re­lated re­sponse and re­cov­ery ef­forts, the bulk of that in the form of low-in­ter­est Small Busi­ness Ad­min­is­tra­tion loans. It has ap­proved $141 mil­lion in in­di­vid­ual as­sis­tance to 31,000 house­holds, num­bers sim­i­lar to dis­as­ter re­lief pro­vided to North Carolina af­ter Florence.

But Congress has failed to pass a ma­jor dis­as­ter-re­lief sup­ple­men­tal­fund­ing bill to pay for long-term re­cov­ery from Michael and other dis­as­ters. The 35-day gov­ern­ment shut­down de­layed ac­tion ini­tially, and then Pres­i­dent Trump and his Re­pub­li­can al­lies clashed with Democrats over fund­ing for hur­ri­cane re­cov­ery in Puerto Rico. The par­ti­san­ship in Wash­ing­ton does not sit well here on the Pan­han­dle.

“We have as many Democrats suf­fer­ing as Repub­li­cans, and we need help. We’re all in the same boat,” said Philip Grif­fitts, chair­man of the Bay County Com­mis­sion and a Re­pub­li­can.

Al Cathey, the mayor of Mex­ico Beach, said it’s “be­yond my com­pre­hen­sion” how the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has failed to pass a dis­as­ter bill.

“That whole bill is be­ing jeop­ar­dized be­cause of pet­ti­ness,” he said.

Down a coun­try road in Bay County, Sam Sum­mers, a heavy-equip­ment op­er­a­tor, and his wife, Sherry Skin­nerSum­mers, who works with the Sheriff’s De­part­ment, have opened their 5-acre lot to peo­ple whose houses and trail­ers were destroyed in the storm.

The back­yard pop­u­la­tion is down to six tents from 10, oc­cu­pied by fam­i­lies and in­di­vid­u­als who can­not find or af­ford ho­tel rooms or apart­ments. The Sum­mers and their donors pro­vide the tents. One fam­ily of four, in­clud­ing a 6-month-old in­fant, is liv­ing with the Sum­mers in their brick ram­bler. More fam­i­lies are ex­pected to ar­rive in the com­ing days, Sum­mers said.

FEMA said agency rep­re­sen­ta­tives, as well as state and county of­fi­cials, vis­ited the prop­erty in mid-March and were shunned by the campers. “On this and pre­vi­ous vis­its, all but a cou­ple of the peo­ple re­fused to speak with any­one,” a FEMA spokesman said.

There re­mains a sus­pi­cion among those in the re­gion that the fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments are not do­ing ev­ery­thing they should to help the re­cov­ery. FEMA has been pay­ing for 283 fam­i­lies to live in tem­po­rary hous­ing for six months, a pe­riod that ex­pires Tues­day. The county and state ap­plied for a 90-day ex­ten­sion; this week, FEMA granted 60 days, and only 17 fam­i­lies qual­ify.

“What this means is, come Tues­day, about 800 in­di­vid­u­als will lose their hous­ing with nowhere to go,” said Grif­fitts.

“If this hur­ri­cane had gone through Cen­tral Florida, South Florida, the dol­lars would have been there by now,” said state Agri­cul­tural Com­mis­sioner Ni­cole “Nikki” Fried. “Peo­ple are out there strug­gling every day – peo­ple whose en­tire life sav­ings, en­tire col­lege fund, is ba­si­cally ly­ing on the ground.”

Many of the lin­ger­ing ef­fects of the hur­ri­cane are in­tan­gi­ble – stress, anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion. Nor­mal rain­storms trig­ger out­size panic. Peo­ple are vis­i­bly fa­tigued, wrung out.

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