Hurricane Michael came ashore in early October as a historically powerful Category 4 hurricane, the likes of which Florida’s Panhandle had never seen. After it wreaked havoc in counties up to the Georgia border and beyond, WFSU reporter Ryan Dailey visited counties around the state’s Forgotten Coast to talk to those affected.
Michael strengthened so rapidly ahead of its landfall, that it left many who hadn’t planned to evacuate little time to do so. Liberty and Calhoun counties are neighboring areas that both dealt with their own challenges.
“There was limbs falling everywhere and it scared me for a second,” said Jamie White. She has lived in the city of Bristol, situated in Northwest Liberty County, her whole life – and rode out the storm in nearby Hosford.
“When we came home that morning to see everything, it was just so devastating,” White said. “Looking at our little town, and it just took on so much, and it was just so unexpected.”
At the time of that interview, it was White and her family’s ninth day without power.
At the Liberty County Emergency Operations Center, outside help was brought in to manage recovery efforts. Ken Parks, an incident commander from Montana, flew in the day after the storm.
“So we’re still hovering around 60 to 70 percent without power at this time. We’ve slowly been increasing that number,” Parks said.
Power losses were severe and widespread, with several counties reporting outages near 100 percent. Food options became scarce.
Clair Martin, who works with Christian Aid Ministries, drove straight to Florida with a caravan of volunteers the day Michael hit.
“There’s a lot of elderly people who don’t have power for their oxygen and all the different needs they have,” Martin said. “We see so much of that, where … electric’s a big deal. And when that goes, we just lose so much.”
After the interview, Martin said he was going to offer condolences to a Bristol resident who lost her husband for that very reason.
“As a matter of fact, after we’re done I’m going to the funeral. And she lost her husband because he needed pacemaker help, and couldn’t get it because it wasn’t an emergency. And he was an elderly gentleman, passed away,” Martin said.
The death toll from Hurricane Michael in Florida stands at about 50. In the hurricane’s aftermath, students in the region, in some cases, had to miss nearly a month of school. Another problem that could plague the region for years to come is the resulting loss of natural resources.
Florida’s Department of Agriculture says about $1.3 billion worth of timber has been damaged by Hurricane Michael. That loss is spread over three million acres of forest. And to residents of Northwest Florida counties where the timber industry is crucial, the loss has some feeling uneasy.
Steve Bailey lives in Calhoun County. A lifelong resident of the region, Bailey is also a former Blountstown City Council member.
"Eighty percent of our income around here is timber-driven,” Bailey said. “They’re talking about pulling the mills out now, because for the next 30 years they will have no wood here. There’s not a planted pine in probably about 50 miles from here that’s not laying over."
Bailey said he already knows of timber workers in the area eyeing a move – and some have already left.
"There’s $100 million worth of damage to the mill in Panama City. They’re not rebuilding, there’s no wood to take to it. So, we’ve got a lot of guys here that are just gonna move probably for the next year to try to find work and come back whenever they can find something here,” Bailey said.
In hard-hit Bay County, housing remains scarce. The area was without phone service for weeks. Even today, internet is spotty and debris piles line the roads – many of which are unrecognizable.
Further south toward the coast in Franklin County’s tiny Eastpoint community, residents banded together to help feed each other. During recovery, the Big Top Supermarket grilled up the last of its chicken while on generator power. One man, who goes by the name Padge, was picking up a meal with his son.
"My parents live right on the water and they lost the bottom part of their house. I went by their house the other day, actually yesterday, I’ve been going by there checking on them,” Padge said. “It’s a little surreal, you’ll be going out walking up their driveway, and you’ll find a picture that you’ve seen before and you’ll be like ‘Oh, I remember that.’ And it’s out in the yard floating wet. And you start walking away and find another picture. There’s just so much stuff you can’t absorb it all in at one time."
To help recovery in the long-term, a coalition led by former state politicians called Rebuild850 was formed. It brings together a number of agencies and organizations assist the region in rebounding from an estimated $4.5 billion dollars in insurance losses. Recovery could take years.
Neighbors helping neighbors became a common scene in many Panhandle counties. For some, like Calhoun’s Steve Bailey – the experience became something spiritual. Bailey spent his days after the hurricane helping feed his community.
“You know I’m not going to bring religion into this," Bailey said, "but I haven’t seen God in the church for a long time, I’ve seen him on this corner for a week now, a solid week.”