Rebuild 850 continues efforts 2 years after Hurricane Michael

Jacqueline Bostick

The News Herald

PANAMA CITY — A fundraising initiative for impacted areas continues its commitment through what members call “a slow recovery” two years after Hurricane Michael.

Members of Rebuild 850 held a virtual press conference this week to discuss the area’s future needs and to reflect on its progress. Former speakers of the Florida House of Representatives Allan Bense and Will Weatherford lead the organization.

“The storm itself was traumatic, but that trauma has been compounded by a painfully slow recovery,” Bense said. “We’ve made progress, but there is still a long way to go.”

Bense said the organization has allocated about $1 million in disaster aid. Housing was at the top of the discussion.

State Sen. Bill Monteford pointed out the storm hit some of “the poorest cities in the state,” which exacerbated existing challenges.

“If you take a snapshot before the hurricane, we were in trouble. Hurricane Michael just made it worse,” said Monteford, who pointed to private investment as “key” to securing the development of affordable housing.

After noting Panama City lost more than 14,000 residents after the hurricane, former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said federal money should be used to ensure people who no longer can afford to live in the area are not left behind. Also, he said the area needs an overhaul of its infrastructure.

We want to build back “the community’s character, but doing it in a way that is improving it,” Fugate said. “We need to build it for the risks we face.”

As a result of money posted earlier this year through the legislative appropriation relating to Hurricane Michael, Panama City has planned for almost $150 million in capital improvement projects, including $81 million for infrastructure, $35 million to replace 11 lift stations and $30 million for water management. The overhaul will make Panama City safer and more attractive to businesses and families, according to city officials.

While public debris cleanup has ended, the private piece continues, according to AshBritt Environmental CEO Brittany Perkins Castillo. The company processed more debris in the seven Hurricane Michael-impacted counties than the 70 counties in Mississippi hit by Hurricane Katrina.

“The debris removal challenges in Hurricane Michael were significant. The recovery continues and we are proud to continue being a part of those efforts,” she said.

Officials also discussed the area’s agricultural industry losses of $1.4 billion — “some of that representing generational wealth that will not be recovered for generations, if ever,” Monteford said.

The snapped trees along highways and empty lots where homes used to be are slowly disappearing and being replaced by new developments. It’s a sign that even a Category 5 hurricane that had maximum sustained winds of 161 mph at landfall and left about $25 billion in damage could not permanently hold back the recovery.

“The good news: yes, there are signs of progress,” Monteford said at the close of the conference. “There are shining lights: citizens of Florida who stepped up and helped the people of Northwest Florida, and they’re still doing it.”

To make a donation to Rebuild 850, go online to