A year af­ter Michael, Florida com­mu­nity still in cri­sis

The Oneida Daily Dispatch (Oneida, NY) - - Front Page - By Mike Sch­nei­der

OR­LANDO, FLA. (AP) >> A year af­ter Hur­ri­cane Michael, the Florida county hard­est hit by the Cat­e­gory 5 storm is still in cri­sis: Thou­sands in Bay County are home­less, med­i­cal care and hous­ing are at a pre­mium, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence has be­come a prob­le­mand se­verely di­min­ished men­tal health ser­vices are over­whelmed with back­logs.

Michael, among the strong­est hur­ri­canes ever to make land­fall in the United States, bar­reled onto the Florida Pan­han­dle on Oct. 10, 2018, with 160 mph (257 kph) winds, rip­ping homes from their foun­da­tions, flat­ten­ing oth­ers and ut­terly dev­as­tat­ing Tyn­dall Air Force Base,

home to 11,000 air­men. It left 22,000 of Bay County’s then-180,000 res­i­dents home­less and re­sulted in to­tal in­sured losses of al­most $7 bil­lion.

This summer, county of­fi­cials un­veiled a nearly 300page blue­print to re­build. Among their ideas is to use ship­ping con­tain­ers and 3-D tech­nol­ogy to build new houses and to of­fer sign­ing bonuses for doc­tors to re­place those who fled when their of­fices and equip­ment were de­stroyed.

They have their work cut out for them: About 5,000 peo­ple are still home­less and rent for the few avail­able liv­ing quar­ters has sky­rock­eted. About 1 in 6 in­surance claims are still un­re­solved, and lo­cal govern­ment of­fi­cials are wor­ried about de­pleted tax cof­fers as small busi­nesses strug­gle to re­open. Bay County schools have lost more than 1 in 8 stu­dents, which will af­fect the amount of state ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing they re­ceive.

“The com­mu­nity at large is suf­fer­ing from trauma and grief,” of­fi­cials said in their re­port, re­leased in July. “Cit­i­zens are fa­tigued, tired and anx­ious.”

Teri Pow­ell Hord, whose Panama City neigh­bor­hood was blasted by Michael, said hag­gling with in­surance com­pa­nies and con­trac­tors has dragged out the re­cov­ery process and is tak­ing its toll on res­i­dents’ men­tal health.

“It’s frus­trat­ing,” Hord said.

More peo­ple than ever be­fore are in need of men­tal health ser­vices. Such ser­vices were fairly lim­ited be­fore Michael hit. Now, of­fi­cials said in their re­port, they are “taxed well be­yond ca­pac­ity.”

Dur­ing the past school year alone, 125 stu­dents in Bay County schools were placed in cus­tody for amen­tal health eval­u­a­tion un­der Florida’s Baker Act. Be­cause the hur­ri­cane left stand­ing only one med­i­cal cen­ter that can re­ceive Baker Act pa­tients, stu­dents were sent to fa­cil­i­ties as far as 580 miles (933 kms) away.

The school dis­trict has a wait­list of 350 stu­dents who need men­tal health ser­vices, and the county at large lost 40 per­cent of its be­hav­ioral health spe­cial­ists af­ter the storm.

“We are in the midst of a men­tal health cri­sis here in Bay County,” school dis­trict of­fi­cials con­cluded in a re­port.

County of­fi­cials also said they had seen a dis­turb­ing amount of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases but did not pro­vide de­tails im­me­di­ately. Health care also has suf­fered.

Sev­eral months af­ter the hur­ri­cane, Daniel Steele’s fi­ancee, Re­becca Akins, started hav­ing breath­ing prob­lems that he thinks were caused by storm-re­lated mold in their home out­side Panama City. He took her to the dam­aged hos­pi­tal, Bay Med­i­cal Cen­ter, but it had lost its in­ten­sive care unit. Akins even­tu­ally was taken to a hos­pi­tal in Pen­sacola, 140 miles (225 kms) away.

“The hos­pi­tal was dev­as­tated by the storm and there’s still no ICU. What’s up with that?” Steele said.

One of the county’s two hos­pi­tals, heav­ily dam­aged by the storm, has only about a quar­ter of the beds it did be­fore.

The Bay County re­cov­ery blue­print calls for sign­ing bonuses, slashed taxes and stu­dent loan for­give­ness to physi­cians and men­tal health providers who come to Bay County. It rec­om­mends build­ing a new hos­pi­tal in Panama City Beach, a sec­tion of the county largely spared the worst of the dam­age, and en­hanc­ing se­cu­rity dur­ing emer­gen­cies at clin­ics that house phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals. It also calls for ac­quir­ing block hous­ing — a large num­ber of apart­ments in the same build­ing or trailer park — to house men­tal health providers.

In Au­gust, Florida first lady Casey DeSan­tis an­nounced the in­stal­la­tion of 63 “tele­health” kiosks where stu­dents in pub­lic schools that were af­fected by the hur­ri­cane can speak to a men­tal health pro­fes­sional re­motely.

Build­ing af­ford­able hous­ing is an­other pri­or­ity for the county — both for res­i­dents whose homes were dam­aged or de­stroyed and the influx of con­struc­tion work­ers who are help­ing to re­build. Hur­ri­cane Michael dam­aged an es­ti­mated 60,000 homes. Since the storm, rental prices have spiked. There have been in­creases in fore­clo­sures as res­i­dents who lost their jobs strug­gled to keep up with mort­gage pay­ments.

County lead­ers are in talks with pri­vate builders to con­struct new af­ford­able hous­ing quickly through non­tra­di­tional means such as 3-D print­ing, mod­u­lar con­struc­tion and tiny houses.

“It’s a chicken and an egg thing,” said Panama City man­ager Mark McQueen. “You can’t get em­ploy­ees un­til you get hous­ing. You can’t get hous­ing with­out con­struc­tion work­ers. We are in a vul­ner­a­ble state of our re­cov­ery with­out hous­ing. It crosses ev­ery sec­tor of our com­mu­nity.”

GER­ALD HER­BERT

FILE- In this Oct. 11, 2018file photo, res­cue per­son­nel per­form a search in the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Michael in Mex­ico Beach, Fla. A year af­ter Hur­ri­cane Michael, Bay County, Florida, is still in cri­sis. Thou­sands are home­less, med­i­cal care and hous­ing are at a pre­mium, and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is in­creas­ing. Michael was among the strong­est hur­ri­canes ever to make land­fall in the United States. This summer, county of­fi­cials un­veiled a blue­print to re­build. Among their ideas: Use ship­ping con­tain­ers and 3-D tech­nol­ogy to build new houses and of­fer sign­ing bonuses to lure new doc­tors.

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