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Nearly 8 Months After Hurricane Michael, Florida Panhandle Feels Left Behind

May 31, 2019
Originally published on May 31, 2019 9:00 pm

When Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle of Florida last October, Keith and Susan Koppelman were huddled in the bathroom of their small, two-bedroom rental trailer just north of Panama City.

"When the winds came we both started praying," says Keith, 49. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this is a big storm.' "

After four hours, they finally emerged to survey the damage. The storm's 160-mile-per-hour winds had torn off the porch and peeled away the trailer's tin siding.

"It was like an atomic bomb went off," says 52-year-old Susan. Oak trees were lying flat on the ground, and a neighbor was calling for help.

The couple had been living there for only a month and a half, but the damage was so serious that their landlord evicted them to make repairs.

Susan Koppelman, 52, and Keith Koppelman, 49, stand for a portrait at a rural property outside Marianna, Fla., where they have been staying since being evicted from their trailer home after last year's hurricane. The landowners allow the couple to live in the storm-damaged house rent-free in exchange for help with the horses.
William Widmer for NPR

They say they were denied FEMA housing assistance, so they lived in their car while looking for a new place to live.

The Koppelmans are among the tens of thousands of Floridians who have been forced out of their homes since Michael, the strongest storm ever to hit the region. Some are still homeless. Many more have left the region entirely.

Small cities along the Panhandle — a mostly rural region of coast, farmland and timber — are struggling to see a way forward between shrinking revenue and the burden of fronting relief costs. The area's largest employer, Tyndall Air Force Base, is years away from returning to full capacity.

Delaying the recovery is an impasse in Congress, which has yet to pass a disaster relief funding bill — something that normally happens in the weeks following a major storm. To top it all off, the new hurricane season begins on June 1.

An American flag flutters above a pile of rubble near downtown Panama City.
William Widmer for NPR
(Left) A church on U.S. Highway 98. (Right) A house on McKenzie Avenue near downtown Panama City.
William Widmer for NPR
Hurricane Michael downed millions of trees across Florida and Georgia. The region's lumber industry is in peril, and the dead trees are a wildfire risk.
William Widmer for NPR

Post-Michael, the Florida Panhandle is transformed. The Category 5 storm wiped out thousands of homes across its path: Michael smashed buildings to splinters, tore off roofs and sent trees careening through walls.

With the housing stock decimated, an apartment in Panama City that might once have gone for $500 per month now rents for more than $1,000. The Koppelmans were dumbfounded.

"I mean, where is the common sense?" says Keith. "Being a renter, and you're still trying to work your job, still trying to make a living — it's just so unbelievable."

The Koppelmans are temporarily staying in one room of a house an hour north of Panama City. For now, they cook meals in the microwave. "I've gotten tired of them," says Susan. "I want to cook so bad." When they finally get a place with a full kitchen, they already have their first dinner in mind: steak or pork chops with mashed potatoes, gravy and corn.
William Widmer for NPR

The only affordable situation the Koppelmans could find was an hour's drive from their jobs in Bay County — Keith on a painting crew; Susan, as a community aide at the elementary school on Tyndall Air Force Base.

A homeowner in neighboring Jackson County offered up a room in his own damaged house. There was no kitchen, so the Koppelmans would have to do dishes in the bathroom sink — but they could live there free if they agreed to help take care of the owner's six horses. They took the deal.

Before the storm, they were paying $450 per month in rent. Now, they pay that much in gas every month commuting.

"It's like our jobs don't end," says Susan. "We come home and we try to get as much done before dark so we get in bed at a decent hour, and [then we] get up at 4 a.m. and do it all over again."

Housing continues to be the most pressing issue.

"Ninety percent of our homes and buildings were damaged," says Mark McQueen, the city manager of Panama City. "That was massive."

Shelly and Sam Summers stand with daughter Gabby in front of a makeshift shelter on their rural Bay County property. They opened their backyard to people who were homeless after Hurricane Michael. At the peak, about 50 people lived there. Now, there are 18. "We still have our home," Shelly says. "They have nothing. So if we can at least offer them the comforts of home, it was worth it."
William Widmer for NPR
Amanda Bohn, 29, has been living on the Summers' property with her sons Isaiah, 8, and Dominike, 9, for two months. She had been living in a rental trailer in nearby Parker but was evicted after the hurricane.
William Widmer for NPR

In Panama City, the largest and best-funded city in Michael's direct path, the effects of the storm are painfully clear, more than seven months later. Telltale blue tarps cover thousands of roofs, while others are brand new. Most unsettling, many buildings look as though the hurricane struck last week — walls collapsed, windows shattered, trees bursting through.

In Bay County, where Panama City is located, the post-storm housing crisis has been exacerbated by the high percentage of residents like the Koppelmans who are renters. Nationwide, about a third of people rent their homes. In Panama City, it's more than half.

And because of the region's tourism economy, rental properties make up an enormous portion of the available housing — further complicating things when the number of livable units dropped precipitously after the hurricane struck, just as the number of people seeking shelter spiked.

The Fletcher Black Memorial Homes public housing complex in Panama City closed indefinitely after substantial damage from Hurricane Michael. Officials say the storm knocked 43% of the city's subsidized housing stock out of commission.
William Widmer for NPR
Mark McQueen (left) and Greg Brudnicki, the city manager and mayor of Panama City. Brudnicki says the storm left Panama City looking like a war zone, "except trees were the missiles."
William Widmer for NPR

McQueen says Panama City and the rest of the Florida Panhandle need federal assistance to address this crisis.

For its part, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided around $116 million in housing assistance for the area. More than 21,000 Florida residents received FEMA rental assistance, though that assistance mostly came to an end in April.

Longer term, President Trump earlier this month committed $448 million of Housing and Urban Development grants to hurricane-affected regions in Florida. The long-delayed disaster relief bill, which is expected to pass next week, contains additional funds.

But rebuilding housing stock through HUD grants takes years to complete. The needs of the hurricane-affected region are much more urgent.

Right now, McQueen says, it's difficult to find rooms for workers coming in to repair and rebuild.

"It's sort of the chicken and the egg," says McQueen. "If we don't get housing up, we can't get workforces. And if we don't get workforces here, we can't get the economy going. If we can't get the economy going, we can't get housing going."

The area's economic recovery also depends on the reconstruction of Tyndall Air Force Base. Counting active duty service members, retirees and their dependents, Tyndall accounts for more than 10% of Bay County's population and drives one-third of the county's economy, according to officials.

Tyndall Air Force Base's Hangar 5 lost most of its roof after the eye of the hurricane passed over the base last fall. The base is using temporary inflatable hangars to continue operations.
William Widmer for NPR
An officers club on Tyndall near the water still sits in ruins. Every structure on the base was damaged or destroyed.
William Widmer for NPR

The eye of Hurricane Michael passed directly over Tyndall, causing catastrophic damage. Every structure on the base was damaged or destroyed.

Even now, the damage is evident. A massive hangar is still missing half its roof. Numerous other buildings stand smashed and ruined by the storm, awaiting demolition.

With most of its permanent housing destroyed, Tyndall was forced to house service members in tents erected in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Michael. But these tents can't withstand heavy winds — personnel were evacuated every time there was a heavy thunderstorm — and can't be used during hurricane season. They're in the process of being dismantled.
William Widmer for NPR

Operationally, the base is carrying on about 80% of its previous mission, says Col. Brian Laidlaw, Tyndall's commanding officer. But the base is "still very much in recovery mode," he says.

Many base operations are being conducted in temporary modular buildings. The control tower reopened only recently.

The Air Force has made a commitment to rebuild Tyndall, echoed this month by Trump at his rally in Panama City. Officials estimate rebuilding will cost $4.7 billion.

Most of the funds needed to rebuild Tyndall must come from Congress. The longer Congress takes, the longer it takes to begin projects necessary to return the base to full capacity. "I can't bring lots of people back until I rebuild my childhood development center. I can't bring new and additional airmen in until I rebuild some of the dorms," says Col. Brian Laidlaw, Tyndall's commanding officer.
William Widmer for NPR

Most of the funding needed to rebuild Tyndall will have to come from Congress. The pending disaster supplemental funding bill contains more than $1 billion for construction and repair projects at Tyndall, along with a second base in Nebraska that was damaged in flooding earlier this year.

Although the Air Force funding was never in question, Congress took months to come to agreements on other contentious issues in the funding bill like money for Puerto Rico recovery and border wall projects. The House is expected to pass the bill in early June. Trump has indicated his willingness to sign it.

Because the bill has been tied up for so long, the base's long-term reconstruction has been delayed. Laidlaw estimates there are roughly 100 projects that the base is "ready to start" but can't until the funds are formally appropriated.

"As soon as the money shows up to start the base rebuild, we're gonna be ready to go. We are ready," Laidlaw says.

For the small municipalities near the base, Tyndall's recovery — including the jobs that go along with it — is one of many things to worry about.

Operations continue at Tyndall despite the catastrophic damage that remains nearly eight months after the hurricane.
William Widmer for NPR

Just across a bridge from the base is Parker, which had 4,500 residents last fall. Since Michael, the city has lost about 15% of its residents. Parker's utility revenue, its main source of income, has shrunk proportionately.

Mayor Rich Musgrave says the financial challenge is the "most frightening aspect" of Parker's recovery. The city's annual budget is $5 million; the debris removal bill alone totaled $7 million. Those contractors haven't demanded payment yet, Musgrave says.

"They've been very kind to us and not forced the issue," he says. "But at some point, the chickens are going to come home to roost."

The city of Parker employs just 33 people, a number that includes the police force, fire department and library. Normally that's plenty to run the city, Musgrave says.

But Hurricane Michael swept in a mountain of financial and bureaucratic challenges that Musgrave says small cities like his are not equipped to handle: securing debt or lines of credit; filing project worksheets and reimbursement paperwork with FEMA; applying for HUD grants.

"The demands for the paperwork and the procedures and the process on us is exactly the same as it is on a city of 50,000, and they've got the staffing" to support that, Musgrave says. "I've got a city clerk that is doing 12 jobs at once."

Rebuilding has begun on El Governor Motel on Mexico Beach.
William Widmer for NPR
But numerous other buildings, like this house near Mexico Beach, look as though the hurricane struck yesterday. Many owners are awaiting inspections or insurance payouts before beginning repairs or demolition.
William Widmer for NPR

For small cities in nearby rural counties, the challenge is even greater. Away from the coast, the Florida Panhandle is rural and poor.

"Most people think Florida is all palm trees and resorts. This is not. This is North Florida," says Craig Fugate, the former FEMA administrator and former director of Florida's state emergency management department.

In Marianna, a city of 6,000 about 55 miles inland from Panama City, Hurricane Michael wrecked the power grid, downed trees and tore off facades along the city's historic downtown.

"We just don't have the resources a lot of communities have," says Jim Dean, Marianna's city manager. The small town can't lean on an Air Force base or beach tourism for economic recovery, or a well-funded county government that can lobby Washington for help as can Panama City and Bay County. Many people work in agriculture or timber. "It's just a bigger challenge for us."

One daunting choice he faces is whether to take on debt to address problems like debris removal more quickly.

The federal government and the state of Florida will eventually reimburse 95% of these costs. But Marianna would have to pay upfront by taking on debt. Reimbursement can take months, even years. All the while, that debt accrues interest — which isn't reimbursable.

"You're going to have to be very selective at what you do, or you're going to put yourself so far in debt that you're going to be paying off debt from this storm before you even begin to provide a baseball field for your kids to play baseball on," Dean says. "Before you buy a new police car, before you buy a fire truck. Just because you're picking up trees."

Mayor Ralph Hammond of Springfield, Fla., one of the small cities in Bay County, rode out the hurricane in City Hall. The building was destroyed and has since been demolished. The site is now used as a staging ground for debris haulers. "We thought we'd be here for a long time," he says. "Michael decided it wasn't going to be."
William Widmer for NPR

Even if the delayed disaster bill passes next week as expected, it will be a long time before those funds reach Marianna and even longer before the city can break ground on any new project. That's a clock that Dean says should have started months ago.

"That money could potentially have already been on the street. There could be projects underway. There could be projects in the design phase or being bid out right now," he says. "If we had done this 200 days ago, we'd probably be in a lot better position. But we're not."

Looking into the future, the long-term financial challenges for small cities like Marianna are considerable: If the population loss is permanent, then tax and utility revenue will drop. School systems are funded per student, so a drop in enrollment could force layoffs and school closures. And if the population doesn't rebound before the 2020 census, the region could lose millions of dollars in federal funds over the following decade.

"This area was already in some cases depressed economically. The storms made it worse," says Fugate, the former FEMA administrator. "Just rebuilding from the disaster will not ensure this community recovers."

"The sun always comes up on the Gulf of Mexico," he says. "They'll eventually recover. But [for] the interior parts of the state, it's going to be a bigger challenge."

The Florida Panhandle is a heavily forested region. The hurricane tore down millions of trees.
William Widmer for NPR

Jolie Myers edited the audio stories. Maureen Pao edited the Web story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The country is finally getting a break from severe weather today. Hundreds of tornadoes touched down earlier this week in states from Texas to New Jersey. And record flooding is expected to continue along the Arkansas River throughout the weekend. But there are many places still recovering from disasters like hurricanes that happened months ago.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Natural disasters don't distinguish between places that have money to rebuild and those that don't. A big city like Miami or Houston has tools to bounce back from a hurricane. You just don't find those resources in a place like Parker, Fla. Rich Musgrave is the mayor of this small town in the Florida Panhandle, population 4,500.

RICH MUSGRAVE: A hundred percent of our structures were damaged in one way or another.

SHAPIRO: Back in October, the eye wall of Hurricane Michael passed right over Parker. It was a Category 5 storm, one of the strongest recorded storms ever to hit the continental U.S.

MUSGRAVE: In the days and weeks directly following the storm, it was difficult to drive around because you lost all your landmarks. You'd pass by a street you used to turn on all the time and you find yourself, oh, I missed it. I have to turn and come back.

SHAPIRO: Now a new hurricane season starts tomorrow. So I visited the Panhandle to see how people are recovering. And one of the things that stood out was how much more difficult it is for small towns like Parker to rebuild.

MUSGRAVE: The level of change is just beyond comprehension.

SHAPIRO: Parker is only 2 square miles, right on the water near Panama City. It used to be known for its sprawling old shade trees. The storm knocked down around 80% of them. The way the system works is that FEMA pays for most of the cleanup costs after a natural disaster. Generally, local governments have to front the money and get reimbursed. Long-term federal money for housing and other reconstruction projects is supposed to come from Congress, but partisan fighting has delayed the disaster relief bill. Meanwhile, the cleanup in Parker cost more than the annual budget. And Mayor Rich Musgrave says FEMA still hasn't reimbursed the town. In the meantime, he hasn't paid the cleanup crews.

MUSGRAVE: They have been very gracious and kind and not asking for or demanding payment of certain invoices. So I'm just kind of holding back.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MUSGRAVE: But at some point, the chicken's going to come home to roost.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying that because the federal government has not reimbursed your town, your town has not been able to pay the companies that did the hauling. And they've just been gracious enough not to knock down your door and say, we deserve to be paid.

MUSGRAVE: Ari, you're exactly right. So the question I have is, at some point, we're going to have to lay out enough cash, and do we have enough ready cash left to pay the bills? I mean, it's a valid question. And I don't know the answer to that yet.

SHAPIRO: Parker has to fill out the same paperwork as a much bigger city, but they don't have as much staff to do it all - filling out project worksheets and writing grant applications. Parker has a few dozen city workers total. That includes librarians and firefighters. Local businesses in Parker are fighting to get back to normal too.

JULIA AHMED: I think those should be ready.

SHAPIRO: When most buildings are damaged and there isn't money to repair them, it's tough for business owners to find a place they can reopen. No local business means the city doesn't get as much income from utilities and taxes, which makes it even harder for a place like Parker to get back on its feet.

AHMED: Well, right now, I have no competition as far as restaurants. There's no restaurants in town. I mean, there's nothing.

SHAPIRO: Julia Ahmed reopened her Pizzeria Napoli, in a new location just last month.

AHMED: We make our dough fresh every day. We make our own sauce. We use fresh ingredients.

SHAPIRO: The storm passed by in October.

AHMED: Yes.

SHAPIRO: The business reopened in April.

AHMED: Correct.

SHAPIRO: Did you ever imagine it would take that long?

AHMED: No. In fact, I kept posting on Facebook we'll be open at the end of January. We'll be at the end of February. And it just kept going on and on.

SHAPIRO: Here on the coast, there's tourism and an Air Force base that towns can lean on to help propel the economic recovery. Rural communities have even bigger challenges. So I drove 50 miles north from the coast.

Marianna is a small town of about 6,000 people about an hour's drive inland. A lot of people here work in farming, timber. When you walk down the main street, you can see buildings that are demolished and others that have had the facades partially ripped off.

CINDY SMITH: To see that building in the street, this one down - there's one in the next block that literally fell into the street. That shook everybody up because, you know, these buildings are over a hundred years old. To see that kind of power humbles you, humbles you greatly.

SHAPIRO: Cindy Smith owns a few businesses on Marianna's Main Street, including Smith and Smith jewelers, where I met her.

SMITH: This county is not big money. It's not a rich county, you know. So you're fighting left and right for the money to get the cleanup.

SHAPIRO: Marianna's annual budget is 5 or $6 million a year. But one of the biggest industries is timber, and many of the trees have been knocked down. One of the biggest employers is a federal prison that's been closed since October.

JIM DEAN: When they moved all those inmates out, we provide all their services - water, sewer and natural gas. Well, you're talking about a million dollars in revenue that just kind of went out the door.

SHAPIRO: Marianna City Manager Jim Dean has had to make some tough financial decisions. If everything in town is damaged and tax revenue isn't coming in like it used to, what do you fix first?

DEAN: You know, you're going to have to be very selective at what you do or you're going to put yourself so far in debt that you're going to be paying off debt from this storm before you even begin to provide a baseball field for your kids to play baseball on, before you buy a new police car, before you buy a fire truck. I mean...

SHAPIRO: Just because you were picking up trees.

DEAN: Just because you're picking up trees.

SHAPIRO: So you feel like the system was not designed for a place like Marianna.

DEAN: It's just a bigger challenge for us.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DEAN: And the programs become more complex. And it just - it becomes a daunting task to try and meet some of the requirements.

SHAPIRO: Next week, Congress is expected to finally pass a disaster relief bill, and President Trump says he'll sign it. But Jim Dean says the fact that it's taken more than 230 days only adds to his problems.

DEAN: That money could potentially have already been on the street. There could be projects underway. There could be projects that are in the design phase or being bid out right now. But we don't have applications because the money is just getting started. We don't have any design work done. And so we're sure not at a point where we can bid the project.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DEAN: So if we would have done this 200 days ago, we'd probably be in a lot better position but we're not.

SHAPIRO: That's Jim Dean, the city manager of Marianna, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: In another part of the program, we'll visit Tyndall Air Force Base just outside of Panama City. In a storm that caused $25 billion of damage almost, 5 billion was on this base alone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.