Florida Panhandle Still Struggles to Recover Six Months After Hurricane Michael

Six months after Hurricane Michael pummeled the Florida panhandle, residents are still grappling with the physical, financial and emotional toll of the storm and its aftermath.

“I’m 42, but I feel 82,” Sabrina Fleming, who owns a barber shop in Panama City, told the Washington Post. “Life is just harder now. Everything takes time. It’s so draining and I want to just run away.”

Michael roared ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 155 miles per hour on April 10, six months ago this week. The storm killed 49 people and cut a swath of devastation across 12 counties, but none more so than Bay County and Mexico Beach. There, the landscape is dotted with concrete slabs where houses used to stand and residents face an emotional struggle of whether to rebuild or not. More than 800 houses, condominiums and other dwellings were destroyed in Mexico Beach, nearly half of the town’s residential units, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Of the residences still standing, less than 400 have both electricity and running water.

(MORE: Farmers Struggle to Recover After Michael)

Developers started contacting residents soon after the storm, but most have stood their ground and city officials have maintained strict zoning laws that limit large-scale development.

“We are an old, retired, vacation community,” Bobby Pollock, 71, whose house took on 4 feet of water and is still under repair, told the Journal. “We want to keep it this way.”

While Mexico Beach has become the iconic face of Michael, much of the storm’s less-tangible impact’s are just now coming to light.

Local resident Lloyd McDaniel wrote a column in the Panama City News-Herald this weekend recounting his experience riding out the hurricane in a small workshop adjacent to his mobile home. In the months since, Lloyd said he has cleared countless trees from his property and repaired much of the damage to his home but, he wrote: "When the wind blows, I remember.”

Sharon Michalik, a spokeswoman for Bay County Schools, told the Post that disciplinary issues have risen dramatically among the district’s students. Michalik said 4,800 students, or one out of every six, are still living in some type of temporary housing.

Part of the struggle comes from the fact that many residents say they have been forgotten by federal authorities, and a nation as a whole that often rallies around disaster victims. The American Red Cross has collected $35 million in donations designated for Hurricane Michael victims, according to the Post. Those numbers pale in comparison to donations for other hurricanes: $64 million for Florence, $97 million for Irma and $522 million for Harvey.

“To some degree it never really penetrated the American psyche,” T.J. Dargan, deputy federal coordinating officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hurricane Michael response and recovery effort, told the paper.

FEMA has provided more than $1.1 billion in aid across the 12 counties affected by Michael.

It may be years before many of the area’s largest employers – especially Tyndall Air Force Base, which sustained an estimated $6 billion in damage – are up and running. The Pensacola News-Journal reported last week that the base’s future still remains uncertain.

Adding to the woes, the Southern Group of State Foresters estimates there are some 72 million tons of timber debris still on the ground in the region, creating a high risk of forest fires.

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