Rebuilding After Hurricane Michael

Mexico Beach (Bay County) before and after Hurricane Michael | NOAA

By Kristen Shell, AICP

Beyond any doubt Hurricane Michael was one of the worst storms in Florida history. The storm was devastating in terms of wind speeds and storm surge. While still early, the University of West Florida has estimated the economic impact of Hurricane Michael at $1.5 billion just based on timber industry losses in 11 counties and insured storm surge losses in Bay and Gulf Counties.

More than 1,300 people are currently living in FEMA housing in Bay County alone and the death toll due to this storm is 35 in Florida and 45 total. As many are aware, the Panhandle is home to several large military installations including Naval Air Station Pensacola, Hurlburt Field, Eglin Air Force Base and Tyndall Air Force Base. These military operations make up a large portion of our economy.

Tyndall, located on the eastern side of Panama City was devastated and the rebuilding of Tyndall is critical to that area’s economy, especially to the cities of Lynn Haven and Parker.

While the national news has focused on Mexico Beach, which sustained the worst damage, other areas where also affected heavily. Many people do not think about the City of Panama City when they hear “Panama City”, instead what comes to mind is the City of Panama City Beach which is a major tourism destination.

The City of Panama City, which was hit very hard by the storm, is a historical Florida downtown complimented by series of unique communities or places.  The city has a diverse population with a historical African-American community that was contemplating place-making based on cultural heritage. These places where and are special. Rebuilding will be long and arduous. Displacement is a real concern.

In general, planners I have spoken within the region feel that the disaster response and organization on the front end was good. The loss of life could have been much greater, and recovery of critical infrastructure has been remarkably fast for the most part.

Some of our Emerald Coast Section members did sustain property damage and lives have in general been turned upside down with schools out or changing, jobs also changing. As a community of planners we are just beginning to formulate how we can work together.

I am sure there will be political debates about how and where to rebuild. Panama City had a strong citizen based new urbanist movement underway before the storm. The Panhandle has lower new construction wind load standards than other areas of the state that I am sure will be debated.

In addition, resilience will no doubt move to the forefront of our conversations more so than it previously was. Right now, though, the focus is still on helping those displaced and getting critical services, such as schools, operational.

If you want to help, please consider a donation to an organization on the ground in the Panhandle or consider purchasing a Shore Up t-shirt, these shirts are a co-effort of the Walton County TDC and are made from 100% recycled materials with 100% of the profits going to hurricane victims. These shirts have been hugely successful and are one county’s way of helping its neighbor.