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, with wind speeds of up to 155 mph.
“You kind of want to believe it’s all okay 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, as measured by wind speed, 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 (population 6,000), 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., one year earlier, prompted $97 million in giving, and Hurricane Harvey, which devastated South Texas in 2017, attracted $522.7 million.
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 to 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 affected by Michael, numbers similar to disaster relief provided to North Carolina after Florence.
But Congress has failed to pass a major disaster-relief supplemental-funding bill to pay for long-term recovery from Michael and other disasters across the country. 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. Sitting on a pile of drywall outside his hardware store, Cathey surveyed the ravaged landscape.
“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 Skinner-Summers, who works with the sheriff’s department, have opened their five-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 and pass a background check. 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, based on requests his wife has fielded on social media.
FEMA said agency representatives, as well as state and county officials, visited the Summers 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 in an email.
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.
The military is counting on Congress to pass the disaster-funding bill to help with rebuilding Tyndall Air Force Base, which took a direct hit from the eye of the hurricane.
“Inside the fence line, morale is pretty high,” base commander Col. Brian Laidlaw said. “But I also recognize that you need to keep fanning those flames. If we can get help from the federal government in the form of a supplemental, that’s just going to keep the momentum going.”
The next big challenge is wildfire season, which runs until July. The storm destroyed 72 million tons of timber, according to Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service. No more than 15 percent has been hauled to sawmills and paper mills. The rest is still on the ground — a disaster waiting to happen.
“All that pine is drying up now. The needles are all brown. Highly flammable,” Karels said. “I worry that we could go from one catastrophic event to another.”
The downed trees also represent a tremendous amount of lost economic security for people who relied on timber as an investment. Some 16,000 landowners were hit by the storm, and most did not have insurance to cover hurricane damage, officials said.
“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 (D). “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.
Misbehavior among school students has spiked, said Sharon Michalik, public information officer for Bay County Schools, where 4,800 students — about 1 in 6 — are classified as living in temporary homes, which federal officials consider homeless. She said that very morning she’d gotten a note from a teacher who has been forced to move seven times since the hurricane and is about to lose her seventh rental.
In Panama City, Sabrina Fleming is back in business at Peggy Sue’s Barber Shop, which had been reduced to a mountain of cinder blocks and wood panels by Michael’s winds. But Fleming is still suffering from a bad case of disaster fatigue. A wildfire erupted close to her home last weekend and raged for three days, fueled by the downed pine trees.
“I’m 42, but I feel 82,” she said. “Life is just harder now. Everything takes time. It’s so draining and I want to just run away.”
One young mother of three, Stephanie Michelle Powiliatis of Panama City, posted a plea on a local Facebook group: “There are so many levels to this destruction that no one could have predicted, and I feel completely out of control lately. I’m constantly scared, more anxious than I was before Oct. 10th, depressed, and worried. Please tell me I’m not alone here.”
More than 200 neighbors replied. They assured her: You’re not alone.
Achenbach reported from Washington.