After Hurricane Michael, The Forgotten Coast Fears It's Being Forgotten
Cleanup and recovery from Hurricane Michael is slow, costly and ongoing. As donations to the area stall and media coverage fades, some residents of the Forgotten Coast fear the area is living up to its name.
The drive to Marianna along Interstate 10 is still littered with downed trees and broken road signs. The road is narrowed to one lane at points, as workers in bulldozers try to make a dent in a seemingly endless supply of debris left by the storm.
Inside the city, trees still lay on houses. Roofs have given way to blue tarps. Branches, tree trunks and wreckage line the streets.
Betty Roberts, a Marianna resident, has one word to describe the recovery: slow.
"It’s frustrating because you have to wait for somebody to have time to come do the repairs," said Roberts. "So I haven’t had anything done at my house yet."
A number of officials have recently visited the Panhandle, including Gov. Ron DeSantis. Roberts appreciates that. But, she said, the Florida Legislature moves slow and that can be disheartening.
“At least you feel like you’re not forgotten," said Roberts.
"But when I drive in – I live out at Compass Lake in the hills – you know, there’s so much other than trees, so much household stuff alongside the roads. It’s depressing just to get out and drive through the area.”
Roberts said she's lucky; damage to her property wasn't too bad. A tree fell on her patio and the 150 mph winds ripped the vinyl siding off her house.
Others, like lifelong Marianna resident Lawrence Adkins, were not as fortunate.
Adkins' mobile home was blown from its cinderblock foundation and the roof was torn off. He recalled the wind knocking down trees like dominoes.
Adkins moved in with his 85-year-old mother after the storm ruined his home. He fixed a few fences that were damaged by fallen trees, but at 65 and disabled, Adkins can't do much by himself.
There aren't enough contractors to keep up with the amount of work that needs to be done, he said.
“My mom’s house got some damage," said Adkins. "I’ve been trying to find a contractor for her and the closest thing I can find is March or April before they even come look at it.”
Adkins has been through hurricanes before, but he said Hurricane Michael was different.
“You can see the economy dwindling," Adkins said. "It’s going to be bad around here for a long time. The forest industry is virtually wiped out around here. I mean the farming: they can replant next year. But the forestry: they’re looking at a 20-year window before they can start producing property around here.”
Agriculture is the lifeblood of Northwest Florida. Timber mills employ and touch entire towns.
Statewide, the losses from 72 million tons of downed trees have exceeded $1.3 billion, according to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“We don’t want our producers and our farmers in this region to have a lost season," said Agricuture Commissioner Nikki Fried, speaking to reporters at Chipola College after visiting with area farmers. "We can’t afford that to happen. This must be the top priority of our administration and we will be working with our partners to get this done.”
Fried is calling for a sales tax exemption for equipment and materials, state-backed, low-cost loans for farmers and a cost-sharing program for irrigation upgrades.
Aside from the economic impact, there's another danger. The threat of forest fires – already common in the region – is amplified by debris left from the storm.
“When they’ve got hundreds and hundreds of acres of timber on the ground and they know that this is prime time to get it off before we get into the dry season," said Fried. "So they know that time isn’t on our side.”
Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service, said the downed trees are dangerous fuel just waiting for a spark.
“Average tons of fuel on the ground in this area run about 4.8 tons per acre," said Karels. "Right now, that average is 50 to 100 tons per acre. So it’s 10 or 12, 15, 20 times as much as it was.”
DeSantis announced earlier this month that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is extending the deadline for 100 percent reimbursement from just five days to 45. The extension came after a meeting with President Donald Trump.
State lawmakers are working on an aid package for the region. They are considering tapping funds from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill settlement and a constitutional amendment aimed at purchasing conservation land.
Fried stressed that she will continue to fight for the community. "We have your backs and we'll be here every step along the way," Fried told Panhandle residents.
Fried was joined by Rep. Brad Drake (R-Eucheeanna). He told the commissioner the area "stands with our arms open. We will accept you into this community. You are a part of us now."
But for people living here, the future is still unclear. Many sunk their life savings into small timber farms as their retirement plan.
Some, like Adkins, said they just are not sure the community will bounce back.
“There are so many residual jobs that come off the logging industry," said Adkins. "So once the trees are gone, that’s it. They’re either going to have to go out of business or relocate to another area that has timber.”