Rebuild 850 Encourages Investment In Hard-Hit Panhandle Areas Two Years After Hurricane Michael

FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2018 file photo debris from homes destroyed by Hurricane Michael litters the ground in Mexico Beach, Fla. Michael was among the strongest hurricanes ever to make landfall in the United States. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
FILE – In this Oct. 12, 2018 file photo debris from homes destroyed by Hurricane Michael litters the ground in Mexico Beach, Fla. Michael was among the strongest hurricanes ever to make landfall in the United States. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Two years after Hurricane Michael, there’s still work to be done toward a full recovery. The group Rebuild 850 is trying to keep that focus front and center for Floridians.

“ The people we’re feeding, they don’t have the dollars to go to those stores right now – they’re broke, I mean, lost everything.” – Steve Bailey

“It was just so devastating – looking at our little town, and it took on so much, it was just so unexpected.” – Jamie White

“First time I ever been scared, fearing for my life and all the people that stay here with me.” – Ronald Custer

Those heart-wrenching accounts are an example of the stories heard frequently across hard-hit areas of the Florida Panhandle following Hurricane Michael’s historically destructive impact in 2018.

It’s now been two years since the Category 5 storm made landfall, bringing dangerous 155 miles per hour winds, devastating property and people’s livelihoods. Dozens were killed by the storm.

It was particularly damaging in Bay County, and surrounding areas stretching up into North Florida’s rural Big Bend counties and even into Georgia.

“Mexico Beach just took a wallop; it virtually was wiped out. That was, I think, the center of the actual Category 5 hurricane,” said Allan Bense, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. He now co-chairs the organization Rebuild 850, a group was formed to keep a public focus on Panhandle recovery.

Ahead of the two-year anniversary, Rebuild 850 held a virtual meeting Thursday to discuss the challenges still faced by the region and the progress it’s made in rebounding.

Bense says COVID-19 compounded an already tough situation economically – but there are glimmers of hope to be found.

“A year after we got popped with the hurricane, we get the pandemic – and that slows down the momentum that you have,” Bense, who lives in Panama City, said. “We’re getting momentum back now, as people get back to work … but there’s still a lot of work to be done in Mexico Beach.”

One of the foremost challenges to the region is dealing with a lack of affordable housing, says former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. He’s also a part of Rebuild 850.

“Over 14,000 residents changed addresses just in Panama City,” Fugate recalled. “And in a meeting I had with the CEO of Waffle House, they were talking about – yes, they got their restaurants open quickly. But many of their associates were displaced, and are now driving hours to work these jobs, because there’s not affordable housing.”

Another obstacle to economic revitalization was the sheer amount of debris on the ground after the storm. Bay County’s manager recently tallied the total debris cleaned up to this point at 19 million cubic yards.

Brittany Perkins Castillo is CEO of AshBritt Environmental, which contracted with several municipalities following the storm to remove debris.

“The impact from Hurricane Michael was as devastating as any we’ve seen,” Perkins Castillo told the group. “So much so, that in seven jurisdictions after Hurricane Michael, our company removed more debris than we did in 70 jurisdictions after Hurricane Irma.”

The price tag for debris cleanup and other recovery is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Rebuild 850’s messaging for helping recovery is “volunteer, visit, invest.” Will Weatherford, another former Florida House Speaker and Rebuild 850 co-chair, says the “invest” portion is key.

“There’s been rebuilding, there’s been volunteering – ultimately what the region needs to fully recover is investment,” Weatherford said, adding he hopes to see businesses make a move into the area. “That’s private investment, it’s not just public investment. We need businesses to come there, we need economic opportunity for people on the ground there.”

But the group’s Clay Ingram, who is CEO of Volunteer Florida, says the affordable housing dominoes need to fall before new businesses can be enticed to move in.

“It’s almost the underlying thing that makes all the other parts of rebuilding difficult to do, if you don’t have a workforce because there’s not somewhere for them to live,” Ingram said Thursday.

Ingram says the Florida Disaster Fund, intended to fill unmet needs not covered by state or federal money, is looking to help on the housing front with millions of dollars in grants already given out.

“We hope we are making a dent in that housing issue, and then as more funds come in, we hope we are able to address that,” Ingram said.

Hurricane Michael was one of only three category 5 hurricanes to hit Florida, since records have been kept. That includes the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that destroyed much of the middle Keys, and Hurricane Andrew which ravaged South Florida in 1992.

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