In the midst of Hurricane Dorian’s scare across Florida, Panhandle residents reflect on Hurricane Michael’s impact on the area.
Hurricane Michael made landfall on Oct 10, 2018, near Mexico Beach, Florida with winds up to 161 mph. The category 4 hurricane claimed the lives of 49 people and left behind 31 million cubic yards of debris.
Although the physical damage was devastating, the community was also affected mentally.
In order to combat this, the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Emergency Management Agency both stepped in to help. Florida Governor and First Lady DeSantis immediately took action after visiting Bay County and seeing the storm’s emotional and mental effect on residents.
“While each experience was unique, it is clear that the pain inflicted by Michael went far beyond the physical destruction,” said First Lady Casey DeSantis. “The invisible wounds caused by such a traumatic experience are just as serious and we must proactively address the mental health of our Northwest Florida communities, especially when it comes to our children….”
Kelsen Preston, a current permanent residence of Callaway Florida, stayed in a local high school for shelter during the hurricane.
“The storm was very draining. I still get nervous anytime it starts to rain or thunder,” said Preston.
The DOE’s Secretary, Betsy Devos, announced a grant of $1,256,574 to Bay School District in efforts to provide mental health services to students, hire multiple social workers, and one paraprofessional for each school in the district.
“My house was destroyed but luckily my family’s insurance covered hotel expenses and reconstruction expenses for our house so we didn’t need FEMA’s trailer. It’s been rough because the reconstruction for our family home didn’t even start until January,” said Preston.
For those who did need a FEMA trailer, the process of receiving a one was not easy. Even after completing the application and the extensive interview and inspection process, residents are responsible for the utilities.
“So the renters, if you’re eligible for the direct housing program, then your trailer will be placed on a commercial area. If you’re a homeowner, then we can definitely do an inspection on your private property to see if we can place a trailer on your private property, if not then we will place it on a commercial property,” FEMA Spokesperson Lenisha Smith said.
Tiffany Mcnabb, a junior business administration student from Panama City described her family’s experience of trying to get the trailer as a fight.
“My family had to fight with insurance employees, contractors, adjusters, city workers, and lawyers just so they could live comfortably again, my dad works for the highway patrol so they gave us a 25 foot RV that my parents currently still live in because construction on my home did not start until this past August, 10 months after the storm,” said McNabb. “The city of Parker of red-tagged my house as inhabitable but FEMA stated that my house was habitable despite my whole roof being gone, the second floor of my house was gone and the first floor was flooded.”
FEMA supplied 900 trailers to panhandle residents displaced by Michael 600 of which were placed in Bay County. One of the largest FEMA commercial sites being the Bay County Fairgrounds which currently houses 132 trailers for families until April 11 of 2020.
Due to the use of the fairgrounds as a trailer site as well as damages to the buildings, Bob Johnson, General Manager of the Central Panhandle Fair, said that the city will not host the annual fair this year.
“Our buildings took a good beating,” Johnson told WMBB.
Although displaced residents were housed and efforts to rebuild have started, many feel forgotten.
“When the hurricane hit in October it completely changed my life mentality and physically,” said McNabb. “School became very stressful because not only I am trying to make sure my family at home is okay but I’m also worried about assignments and tests, it just felt like everyone around me was moving on and forgetting what happened to people literally 2 hours from us.”
As the year anniversary of the tragedy approaches, many residents are still displaced and shaken by the incident. The community has strengthened and bonded through events and groups such as the popular Facebook group ‘850 Strong’. The name has become popular among residents and non-residents through car stickers, t-shirts, and more.
If you are interested in donating to the Panhandle area, visit http://850strongsong.com/