Three years after Hurricane Michael, more work is needed before Bay County fully recovers
Hurricane Michael recovery has come a long way in Bay County since the Category 5 storm made landfall there three years ago. Still there's much left to rebuild.
“The county has recovered marvelously, though we’ve still got a ways to go,” said County Commission Chairman Robert Carroll during a virtual prayer call to discuss recovery three years after Hurricane Michael made landfall. “Most people are back in their homes. We’re extremely pleased with the progress that’s been made.”
Carroll said the county is now working to make its public facilities more resilient against future storms. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has recently approved hazard mitigation grant funding for projects, including building a storm-proof safe room in the county jail to accommodate 125 staff members, hardening wastewater systems and fire stations, he said.
“At the end of the day, if another storm came through after this, we’d be prepared for it,” Carroll said.
The federal grant funding comes alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to speed up the politically-friendly county’s recovery. On Friday, he visited there to announce the state will cover a 25% local match requirement for the federal hazard mitigation grants — which would total $2.8 million in additional state dollars for the county.
“We’re still in the fight,” DeSantis said at a press conference on Friday. “We’re still going to do more.”
Among the county's critical needs for recovery is to bring more affordable housing back online, said Donna Pilson, executive director of Rebuild Bay County, a nonprofit that connects residents to housing, utility and repair assistance.
“The [housing] inventory that is available is not affordable for everyone," Pilson said. "Housing continues to be a huge problem. We continue to look for ways to create housing options or housing solutions, whether it’s temporary housing or supplementing housing costs with different grants that we have.”
Signs of recovery are evident throughout downtown Panama City, where public art decorates buildings, green spaces and utility boxes. Thousands of trees have been planted in an effort to restore the town’s tree canopy. And the downtown area has seen a 67% increase in new businesses opening since before Michael, said Mayor Greg Brudnicki while speaking on the virtual call on Sunday.
“Business is booming,” he said. “With all the destruction, there are a lot of new things that have started. We appreciate the resiliency of our citizens.”
Kori Saucier, who moved to Panama City just after the storm, and her boyfriend were taking a walk on Sunday evening near the newly remodeled Center for the Arts, which is now partially covered with a mural of pink flowers. “All that was destroyed. My boyfriend’s apartment was destroyed. He had to live with his parents,” she said. “But it has come back so big, and it’s kicking butt. It’s really, really, really nice.”
The city has also made progress on its efforts to restore its tree canopy. Its goal is to plant 100,000 trees by 2025. The city set up a nonprofit organization called Re-Tree PC to meet its target. The city recently released an interactive map that pinpoints nearly 8-thousand trees already planted on public property.
“We’re going to create a plan of how to re-tree all of our properties back to bringing the canopy that we had prior to Hurricane Michael and also expanding that tree canopy,” said Sean DePalma, the city’s quality of life director.
Since the hurricane, more than $102.3 million in FEMA recovery reimbursements had been approved for Panama City as of Aug. 19. The town has also received hazard mitigation grant funding.
Not every community has seen as much progress. In Lynn Haven, several public facilities remain offline. Construction began last month on a new municipal building that will house City Hall and the police station. And work hasn’t yet begun on the town’s sports complex.
“We are rebuilding our sports complex. And we’re going to begin new memories for our families,” Mayor Jesse Nelson said, while giving an update from the park during the virtual call. “It was here that my children played softball and t-ball. And it is going to be here, where future generations build memories with their families.”
Nelson was elected mayor in May — about nine months after former Mayor Margo Anderson left office following her arrest. Anderson was indicted on federal charges related to misusing hurricane recovery dollars and is awaiting trial.
In September, construction started on a new municipal building to house City Hall and the police station. Many of those employees are still working out of temporary mobile units.
In Mexico Beach, where Michael made landfall, recovery still has a long way to go. “We’re the smallest community in Bay County with the highest level of devastation,” said Mayor Al Cathey. Since the storm, the town’s water and sewer systems have been restored and some businesses have come back online. But most of the town’s amenities, including its pier, parks, civic center, police and fire stations haven’t yet been rebuilt. And those projects haven’t yet been approved for FEMA reimbursement dollars.
Cathey says the town is working on completing “mountains of paperwork” to negotiate aid for outstanding projects. “I had no idea the scrutiny that we would go through to get disaster recovery money. It’s been an exhausting process.”
Since the storm, FEMA has obligated about $100 million to the town for projects, and about $70-80 million of that has been paid to cover the costs of debris removal and restoring the town's fishing canal and bridge, along with its water and sewer infrastructure.
Cathey says the town is still negotiating with FEMA to secure about $25 - 30 million in reimbursements to rebuild its pier, fire and police station, a jetty repair project and a new civic center.
The town’s economic recovery has also been gradual. Some businesses have reopened since the storm, but there’s still a need for more dine-in restaurants and a grocery store, he said. “We only have one sit-down restaurant,” Cathey said. “For our rebuild to be really robust, we have to have a grocery store.”
Cathey says he expects to see a sharp increase in tourism in the next year and a half when construction is completed on the town’s three motels.
The state has helped the town move projects along more quickly without having to borrow money from private lenders, Cathey said.
One recent example is the state Department of Emergency Management agreeing to cover local matches required to receive federal reimbursement aid, meaning the town doesn’t have to come up with that money from its limited coffers.
“That was a home run for the city of Mexico Beach because we didn’t know where we were ever going to get those monies to match our recovery funds,” Cathey said. “That was monumental for us, and we’re grateful for it.”