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Mental Health Struggles Abound In The Panhandle, One Year After Hurricane Michael

Trees are broken and crumbled onto a house in a Panama City neighborhood after Hurricane Michael.
Briney King

One year after Category 5 Hurricane Michael made landfall near Mexico Beach, children and adults are still struggling with the catastrophe and the changes. Homes and schools were damaged, livelihoods were destroyed, and recovery has been slow.

Michael was Tanner Livingston’s first hurricane. “When they still talk about hurricanes, I’m still afraid of them,” he says during an open house at Deer Point Elementary, where he’s a kindergartner.

The family’s Lynn Haven home in Bay County was damaged, and Tanner recounts in detail what happened after they hid in his mom’s closet.

“After a couple of minutes or two, the roof came down and we had to move into the laundry room. Then we thought the laundry room roof was going to come down, but it didn’t,” Tanner says. “Then we went into the garage, and then the attic - a bunch of water through the roof busted in and water came out of the roof, and we went back into the laundry room, and I was crying a lot.”

Tanner Livingston wears a backpack as he stands in front of pile of tree debris after Hurricane Michael. His Lynn Haven home was heavily damaged.
Robbie Livingston

Tanner says he’s doing okay since the storm. But a lot of kids in hard hit Bay County are not. Schools were heavily damaged and reopened nearly a month after the storm.

We don't have mental health professionals or certainly not enough of them in the schools right now. ~Jim Clark

The district saw more than 700 students referred for behavioral issues in the first two months schools were back open. Another 70 students were taken into custody under the Baker Act for emergency mental health services. Elevated numbers of students are still being referred for help a year later.

“The most traumatic experiences are those in which their parents or caregivers are also traumatized or stressed,” says FSU College of Social Work Dean Jim Clark. “Children have also limitations in terms of their brain development and their sophistication and understanding something, for example, understanding that there’s a difference between a severe thunderstorm and a Category 5 hurricane.”

“12 to 15% of people who’ve been through a serious stressor like a hurricane or other natural disaster develop PTSD,” says Clark, who is also a licensed clinical social worker. “For those that are vulnerable to developing it, it literally becomes a wired response. It’s not something that simply psychologically can be conquered through just willing your way out of it.”

Jim Clark stands next to Allie, a 10-year-old therapy dog who joined him on visits to Bay County schools and other areas damaged by Hurricane Michael.
Meg Croney-Clark

Telehealth kiosks have been installed at schools in Bay County and five other panhandle districts so mental health professionals can be reached immediately.

After the storm, FEMA asked Clark to get 88 trained social workers into the region as soon as possible.

“We do not have an adequate workforce in the region – mental health workforce,” Clark says. “We don’t have mental health professionals or certainly not enough of them in the schools right now where some of this could be prevented or treated in an outpatient way or even on school campuses.”

Like many businesses, Panama City’s Emerald Coast Behavioral Hospital was closed for months after the storm. It finally reopened to plenty of adults who needed help. “The adults that we’re getting from the community (have) a lot of anxiety, depression, some PTSD maybe from the storm,” says hospital Assistant Administrator Mike Barbour.

Panama City resident Judy Woodruff sits at her desk at work and tears up as she talks about Hurricane Michael damage and the difficult recovery.
Morgan Martin/WFSU

“Everyone that has lived here any length of time came back to an area that looked like it had been bombed,” says Panama City resident Judy Woodruff, who spoke to us a few months ago from her office at Panhandle Key and Safe. “I mean there’s not any trees and most buildings that were in the path are gone. It’s been very, very heartbreaking. There’s not a day of my life, like today, that I don’t cry about it if it’s brought up. That’s why I try not to think about it.”

The organization Rebuild 850, which was formed after the storm, estimates recovery efforts in the panhandle are about 50% complete.

Valerie Crowder and Morgan Martin contributed to this report.