PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Business used to be good at Peggy Sue Singleton’s tiny, white cinder-block barber shop, where she and a co-worker snipped and buzzed more than 200 heads of hair each week in this seaside city adjacent to a military base.
The cinder blocks now are strewn across the parking lot as if bludgeoned by a wrecking ball, her parlor a haphazard heap of construction innards: splintered wood, smashed windows, wire. As she sifted through the remains, Singleton salvaged two $500 hair vacuums, a stash of suds from her “free beer Fridays,” and the sign that once displayed her prices: Haircuts $11; flat tops $13.
“This is the ‘happy place’!” the battered white lettering says.
Hurricane Michael was the wrecker of this happy place. It hit here more than a week ago, with 155-mph winds that ripped and twisted a wide path through coastal and inland communities, flattening buildings, tearing up roads and knocking out power to entire counties. Michael didn’t just break objects, it upended everything. Life in Panama City is still completely disrupted, with many lacking power, running water, reliable cell service and access to the Internet.
This city of 36,000 has long been a gateway to the Gulf, a white-beach playground providing a touch of paradise along the Florida Panhandle. But residents are now carving out new, unfamiliar existences amid the destruction, driven by the dictates of survival and loss of the staples of modern life.
Some — like Singleton, who said she has cut a deal with the commander of Tyndall Air Force Base to trim hair there, under escort — are devising fresh ways of doing former jobs. Others are seeking entirely new employment, often facing competition from outsiders looking to take advantage of the repair work that follows a disaster. And everyone is adapting to a society where credit cards and cellphones often don’t work. The recovery has transformed their surroundings into a giant construction site, where the whine of sirens joins the constant buzz of chain saws and the clanks of heavy equipment. Traffic crawls.
There is now no need to budget for basic necessities such as food and bottled water, which are free at distribution centers, though ice is hard to find. Registering with insurance adjusters or for federal aid without a working phone requires waiting in line. Information about open pharmacies or stores selling generators and batteries is passed on by word of mouth. The few stores that are open often make cash-only sales, but legal tender is hard to find, too: Most banks remain closed, and ATMs aren’t working. One bank, BB&T, put a mobile satellite unit in a parking lot to help infuse cash into the community.
“When there’s not power, there’s not connectivity, and obviously they don’t work,” Brian Davis, a BB&T spokesman, said of ATMs. Davis is from Panama City and drove from North Carolina the day after the storm to evacuate his mother and her husband. “It’s bad. I cried,” Davis said. “I used to be in news. I’ve seen hurricanes, I’ve seen tornadoes. . . . I’ve never seen anything like this.”
A week without infrastructure is testing even those who prepared for the storm and its aftermath. Jack Humphreys and his son-in-law, both retired from the military, filled their vehicles with gas, knowing it would give them enough to siphon for their generator and other unforeseen emergencies. They withdrew $500 in cash, expecting it might be difficult to navigate a post-hurricane economy.
But the family quickly exhausted the money: “We went through it like candy,” Humphreys said, as he set out to buy bananas. “Everything is cash. You can’t get to a bank.”
In addition to being unable to access money, residents also are competing to make more of it with disaster-savvy out-of-towners from North Carolina, Texas and beyond. Some after-storm entrepreneurs are offering specialized skills as roofers, tree surgeons and mold-abatement experts, and others just import their muscle to help clear debris and rebuild.
A waitress at a seafood restaurant served up beer and wine to customers in a city that’s been dry for several days. She had lost one part-time job, and noted that all the new work seemed to be for burly young men. The tables at Dat Cajun Place, owned by a couple who fled here from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, were largely occupied by men — among them visiting contractors and locals, who were trying to get their houses fixed while their wives and children stayed with family or friends.
After relying on bottled water and free baby wipes to wash off with at the end of days of hard labor, some residents spoke wistfully of warm showers, flushing toilets and working laundromats. By Friday, when the roiled sea returned to azure blue, some families took to the beach for sanctuary from the endless cleaning and repairs and as schools remained closed.
At People Ready, a temporary employment agency, Keith Crawford, a barber from Biloxi, Miss., who lived through Katrina, said he had just driven in from Wilmington, N.C., where Hurricane Florence opened work opportunities a month ago.
“There’s work everywhere,” Crawford said. And the cost of the gas was worth it when he could earn $10.50 an hour traveling the country doing disaster cleanup.
Christine Hudson, 50, said she didn’t have trouble finding jobs before the storm but isn’t sure about the future, with so many tourism and service businesses damaged or destroyed.
“That’s why I came here. I’ve never signed up for a day labor place before, but it will keep us busy for a while,” Hudson said. She was relieved to learn that the firm has immediate jobs that pay between $10 and $13 an hour.
“It helps keep your mind off of . . . all this,” she said, gesturing to the shattered landscape. Hudson’s truck was ruined and the windows of her apartment blown out, but she has nowhere else to go.
Panama City is best known for its beaches and tourist economy, but the damage to large employers could affect the area for years.
The storm wrecked much of Tyndall, which evacuated its 3,600 active-duty and 2,000 civilian employees, plus thousands of dependents and military retirees. There are no estimates yet of total rebuilding costs. The WestRock Company paper mill employed about 600 people, but it said in a statement that some production will be limited to 50 percent of capacity for the next six months.
There also was widespread damage at Eastern Shipbuilding Group, which employed about 800 people and had plans to expand next year after winning a large Coast Guard contract. Vice President Steve Berthold said it is too soon to estimate when production will resume, but about 40 percent of the workforce is doing cleanup and repairs.
More than 1,000 people work at or around the Port of Panama City, said executive director Wayne Stubbs. The main port operations suffered but are generally repairable and should be able to service most customers right away.
But a new warehouse at its east terminal and a distribution warehouse north of town suffered major damage. “You never dream that all three facilities could get hit so hard at once,” Stubbs said.
At RV Connections, employees drove a convoy of vehicles north before the storm and brought them back when the weather settled. Owner Jack Stewart usually sells about 45 RVs each month. Now, with people homeless, he is selling four or five modest RVs a day that can accommodate several people. It is not a success he takes pleasure in.
“This is not the way we like to sell our RVs,” Stewart said.
Veronica LaMont works at an adult novelty store in neighboring Panama City Beach, a tourist mecca where business is usually pretty good. Since the storm, regulars have dropped by to check in with her but made few purchases. It’s not clear when tourists who drive so much of the regional economy will be back. And the first responders occupying the vacation condos haven’t made up for the drop in sales.
“They are just too busy for that,” LaMont said. “They don’t have time.”
Local residents are exhausted, too, figuring out how to right themselves. Singleton, sifting like an archaeologist through the remains of her barber shop, suddenly plunged for a dusty object, settled its familiar grip back into her hand and raised it above her head in triumph.
“Oh my God, those are my clippers!” she exclaimed.
Begos is a freelance journalist based in Florida. Zezima reported from Washington.