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In Florida Panhandle, resilience battles uncertain ability to rebuild

Why We Wrote This

Poor rural communities inland were caught off guard by hurricane Michael, and lapses in long-term recovery efforts can exacerbate existing inequality, experts say. But there is a strain of resilience that does not lie far beneath the surface.

Carmen K. Sisson
Grand Ridge, Fla., resident Mary Walden receives cleaning supplies from volunteer Wilma Johnson at the town's emergency distribution point last month. Residents have relied heavily upon donations since hurricane Michael swept through the area Oct. 10. And some distribution centers have had to close.

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One month ago, hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, laying waste to places like Grand Ridge, 70 miles inland. Brick homes were bifurcated by massive trees. Trailers were peeled open like sardine cans. Churches lost steeples. Businesses lost roofs. Emergency distribution points are set to close soon, a severe blow to suffering communities. “With Florence and Michael coming on the back of 2017’s massive storms and fires, we’re seeing how megastorms knock people off of the ladder of the American dream,” says Michelle Meyer, who studies long-term disaster recovery at Texas A&M University. “What disaster researchers are finding more and more is that there are people who never come back and never rebuild.” A few miles outside of town, Tausha White splits wood. A tree fell on her family’s house, and another uprooted their well. They’re cooking on a wood stove and washing clothes by hand in 55-gallon trash cans. The most important thing, Ms. White says, is that they are together. “This place looks like a mansion compared to some,” she says, returning to her log-splitting. “I’m alive, and my family is alive. That’s all that matters to me.”

The line is endless. Cars arrive soon after daylight, snaking in a semicircle around Grand Ridge, Fla., Town Hall as volunteers dole out cases of water, baby diapers, hygiene kits, and cleaning supplies.

Inside the red brick building, town manager J.R. Moneyham stares at a card on his desk: “There is always hope!” it proclaims in looping cursive. But things don’t feel very hopeful. Mr. Moneyham vacillates between flinty anger and choked-back tears. Mostly though, he worries about the town’s residents. 

“They were poor to start with, and now they’re out there sleeping in tents,” Moneyham says. “I’m a pretty tough old guy, but I can’t deal with days like this every day.”

One month ago, hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, laying waste to coastal cities such as Mexico Beach as well as places like Grand Ridge, 70 miles inland. It left thousands essentially homeless. They join a growing population of the storm-displaced, facing days of particular and peculiar challenges, from Bay County, Fla., to Pender County, N.C., 700 miles to the northeast. For many of these Americans, life has become a world of heartache as they wait for insurance settlements, hope for loans, and scratch together resources as the job market returns to normal.

“With Florence and Michael coming on the back of 2017’s massive storms and fires, we’re seeing how mega-storms knock people off of the ladder of the American dream,” says Michelle Meyer, who studies long-term disaster recovery at Texas A&M University in College Station. “What disaster researchers are finding more and more is that there are people who never come back and never rebuild.

“In many ways, the responses like closing the distribution centers shows a lack of understanding of how bad people have it and how great the inequality has grown in our country,” says Ms. Meyer, the associate executive director of Texas A&M’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. “That handoff between emergency service to more long-term social services, more long-term rebuilding, and more long-term food security, we drop that baton in almost every disaster.”

In Mexico Beach, the roof of the Methodist church was in the middle of Highway 98, and ceiling fans stick up out of the sand like absurd seashells, detached from the homes where they once brought comfort and light. To the west in Panama City, traffic snarls and gas shortages test tempers, and nightly looting keeps residents and local law enforcement on edge.

Grand Ridge, a bucolic rural haven of rolling pastures and pine forests, only has one red light which is, mercifully, still operating. But in the town of 892 residents, few structures escaped damage. Brick homes were bifurcated by massive trees. Trailers were peeled open like sardine cans. Churches lost steeples. Businesses lost roofs. Historic homes and modern strip malls sport blue tarps like badges of survival.

Though help has arrived, some, like Moneyham, say state and federal aid has been slow, inadequate, and misdirected. And as need has dropped by 94 percent since Oct. 15, the state is this week closing a number of distribution centers and soup kitchens. That impending loss is a severe blow to suffering communities.

Local grassroots efforts like the donation drop-off site in Grand Ridge are critical, Moneyham says. He lost farm equipment, winter feed, fencing, and cattle. At the moment, he is more concerned with taking care of the needs of his town.

“I’ve got to keep these people fed,” Moneyham says, rubbing his eyes wearily. “There are a lot of people that will be left out, with nowhere to lay their heads. These people haven’t worked in two weeks, and they were living paycheck to paycheck. They don’t want a handout, but they’re going to need some help.”

Some will return to work once power is restored, but others will have to wait until their businesses are repaired or rebuilt. Some will not rebuild at all, forcing employees to find new jobs.

Carmen K. Sisson
Jayden Davis, 14, watches as his brother carries their belongings from their destroyed home, Oct. 21, 2018, in Grand Ridge, Fla. The family had to move after hurricane Michael swept through the area, leaving behind a swath of destruction across the Florida Panhandle and parts of Alabama and Georgia.

“Recovery will be long and hard,” says Sandra Knight, who worked on disaster resilience across three federal agencies and is now an environmental engineer at the University of Maryland, in College Park, in an email. “There are still projects wrapping up from [hurricane Katrina in 2005]. It took a year to get utilities up across Puerto Rico. People that were just starting to build back in North Carolina were hit again by Florence and Michael. For those that are not insured, there are only small grants from FEMA and loans from SBA [Small Business Administration]. Everything else is up to individuals, communities, and voluntary organizations.”

Judging by the actions of state officials, the need surely remains. North Carolina extended its loan deadline to Christmas given the continuous applications still coming in. Before Tuesday, Florida extended early voting to nearly 200,000 voters inside the eight-county area ravaged by Michael’s roof-tearing winds.

Experts say a struggle to define need against available resources has intensified given the vastness of the devastation. It also underscores that the recovery will likely be measured less by governmental support and loans, but the durability and hardiness of America’s sudden tent-dwellers.

People like Florida state trooper Susan Barge have been a godsend. When a load of supplies was mistakenly sent to another city, she made a Facebook post asking for donations. The next morning, Moneyham watched in amazement as people flocked in from around the country, bringing food, water, and loads of good cheer.

A few hundred miles to the northeast, on the North Carolina sand plains, a storm, Florence, that festered for nearly four days six weeks ago is still causing emergency managers to shake their heads. After all, several of the communities hit had not yet fully recovered from hurricane Matthew, which struck two years ago. FEMA trailers dot the landscape, and will for months. Crops were decimated, throwing farm communities into disarray. Damage estimates recently rose from $13 billion to $17 billion. The state’s rainy day fund is $1.8 billion.

Meanwhile, more than 400 people are still in shelters, and some cities remain under nightly curfews. Truck stops and shopping center parking lots are packed with utility crews, volunteers, and exhausted families eating meals from Styrofoam boxes and sleeping in their cars.

11 million meals, 3 million pounds of ice

At the behest of outgoing Florida Gov. Rick Scott, FEMA has dispatched a phalanx of housing options from RVs to multi-property leases. Emergency managers have offered 11 million meals and 3 million pounds of ice to storm victims. A National Guard Joint Task Force has carried out 407 missions to date. FEMA has approved $80 million for individual assistance grants.

But officials have begun to see the charity as an impediment. “As economic recovery must happen hand in hand with individual recovery, continuing [distribution] operations hampers the return to normal for local businesses and diverts economic activity away from the community,” Bay County emergency managers wrote on the county website.

That message from officials underscores a deeper frustration with – and perhaps questioning of – decisions that are being made by residents. Critics say they’re blaming the victims.

Indeed, Floridians have taken criticism from some, including Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long, who held a press conference lambasting citizens for failing to heed warnings to evacuate and letting home insurances lapse.

But it’s not that simple, says Florida state trooper Barge, helping out at Grand Ridge Town Hall.

As a former resident of Key West, she is no stranger to hurricanes. But inland, Grand Ridge wasn’t prepared for the force of the Category 4 hurricane, which was still packing winds in excess of 100 m.p.h. when it raked across the area.

In a town like Grand Ridge, where many people worked two jobs and averaged a median household income of $31,083, evacuating wasn’t a simple option.

“People don’t always have money to get in a car and drive to a hotel,” Ms. Barge says. “Some don’t even have a car. These people never expected anything like this. This is a farming community. They’ve lost crops. People are living on the streets, not working. They’re counting on [these donations].”

Local teacher Wilma Johnson’s home was heavily damaged, but she is at Grand Ridge Town Hall daily, making sure people get what they need. Some residents, like Mary Walden, have simple requests – just a few trash bags, please. But others, like Billy Hendrix Jr., leave empty-handed. Mr. Hendrix counts himself lucky because, unlike his neighbor, he is still able to live in his home, but he was hoping to get tarps for his roof.

When you’re operating solely on the generosity of others, Ms. Johnson notes, you take what you can get, which means you may end up with 200 red toothbrushes but not a single blue tarp.

That struggle to satisfy need with actual necessities, however, is countered by a strain of resilience that does not lie far beneath the surface of largely rural, often poor, places that took the brunt of this season’s hurricanes.

“The whole back of my house is gone,” Johnson says. “That was my home, and I watched it go down, and it hurt, but I can’t sit down and cry about it. We’ve got to be positive. You can’t see it now, but down the road you’ll see that God made us better.”

‘Like a mansion’

A few miles outside of town, past a plywood sign that encourages passersby to “Make Grand Ridge Great Again,” Tausha White splits wood while her cousin, Eddie Bamberg, tinkers with his rusted red tractor, trying to coax it to run.

They rode out the storm in Ms. White’s 80-year-old wooden house with other family members, friends, and their assortment of cats, dogs, and ducks. The chickens, along with the potbellied pig, Bacon, were left outside to fend for themselves.

Though a tree fell on the house and another uprooted their well, they say they’re managing fine without electricity or running water. They’re cooking on a wood stove and washing clothes by hand in 55-gallon trash cans. When hungry they can go hunting or run a trotline to catch fish.

The most important thing, White says, is that they are together. 

“This place looks like a mansion compared to some,” she says, returning to her log splitting. “I’m alive, and my family is alive. That’s all that matters to me.”

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