With this week marking six months since Hurricane Michael crashed ashore with 155 mile per hour winds, killing 49 people during a near Cat-5 rampage across 12 Panhandle counties and two states, there is resignation that the region’s recovery could take years.
Snap shots – images of mute slabs where houses once stood sprawling like flat tombstones across broken landscapes of busted trees and buckled roads; distressing updates in federal, state statistics – paint a picture that illustrates the challenges ahead in the wake of the Oct. 10 storm.
According to Florida’s Office of Insurance Regulation [OIR], as of March 29, 144,667 property insurance claims – 95,632 residential – totaling an estimated $6.153 billion in damage had been filed. Some economists have estimate the storm could cost up to $12 billion in economic losses.
Bay County remains the most devastated of the 13 disaster zone counties with 86,855 of the 144,667 property insurance claims filed by its residents.
Mexico Beach, where Michael ripped ashore, remains the most damaged area within Bay County. More than 800 of the town’s dwellings – half its homes – were destroyed. Of those still standing, half don’t have both electricity and running water.
According to the Bay County School District, approximately 4,800 students – one out of every six – still live in temporary housing or otherwise uncertain circumstances.
Between 75 and 95 percent of the canopy across a million acres of North Florida forests was toppled. Scattered, splintered timber now create fire and flooding hazards amid vulnerable, compromised infrastructure and structures.
The Southern Group of State Foresters estimates 72 million tons of timber debris remain on the ground in the Panhandle, putting “233 communities at risk” for fires and flooding, state emergency management officials warn.
Florida State Forester Jim Karels says it would take 2.5 million log trucks to haul away all debris left by Michael.
The state transportation department reports it has removed more than 18 million cubic yards of debris in nine counties. This week, the department announced it will receive $9.8 million in federal grants to reimburse cleanup costs in Jackson County.
Florida Agriculture Secretary Nikki Fried lobbied last week in Washington for what the state claims is needed: $39 million.
• Tyndall Air Force Base – a key regional economic driver – sustained an estimated $6 billion in damage. During a House Armed Services subcommittee discussion last week, lawmakers questioned whether Tyndall and Camp Lejeune should be rebuilt after being whacked by hurricanes.
• The Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] reported this week it has provided more than $1.1 billion in aid to 31,257 emergency assistance applicants in Florida.
FEMA said it approved more than $141 million in its “Individual & Households Program” and $58 million in public assistance grants to Florida’s Michael victims.
Some assistance programs are ending, the agency said, beginning with Tuesday’s expiration of Transitional Sheltering Assistance vouchers. Around 250 Bay County households could lose vouchers that allowed them to stay at hotels and face eviction unless the state can convince FEMA to extend the program.
The scattershot of grim details is underscored by a seeming lack of interest outside the region, which already referred to itself as “The Forgotten Coast.”
The American Red Cross reported this week it has collected $35 million in Hurricane Michael donations, far below what it received for past storm victims – $64 million for Florence, $97 million for Irma and $522 million for Harvey.
Meanwhile, a $13.5 billion federal emergency-relief aid package remains in Congressional limbo while Florida lawmakers scramble to put together a recovery plan from different Senate and House proposals that critics say fall far short.
Florida has spent $1.2 billion – and counting – to help with recovery, an effort that could cost nearly $3 billion in the state’s fiscal year 2020 budget.
But the Senate’s proposed $90.3 billion proposal calls for a $1.8 billion hurricane recovery allocation – including the already-spent $1.2 billion – and relies on eventual reimbursement through the stalled Congressional emergency aid bill.