CBN News: 'People Just Forgot Us': Life on the Panhandle Nearly a year After Hurricane Michael
MEXICO BEACH, Fla. – The stretch of coastline along the Florida panhandle is known as "The Forgotten Coast." It's seen as the last remaining stretch of unspoiled Gulf Coast beach.
In October of 2018, Hurricane Michael ripped through this region as a Category 5 hurricane, and residents say it's given their nickname "The Forgotten Coast" a whole new meaning.
"It's like people just forgot us here. Even my neighbors. We all used to be really good friends, it seems like since the storm no one even talks to us anymore," said Panama City resident Aimee Scollon.
"[You] can't make appointments at the doctors' offices because they're out of business, trees down still everywhere...that's what's so depressing, you don't feel like you're progressing," Panama City resident Melissa Anderson told CBN News.
"Right now every day is a workday, literally...people just can't find enough workers to help, so there's really not a day to plan vacation or holidays," Laurie June said about life in Mexico Beach since Hurricane Michael.
June and her husband had a home there. It was completely ripped off its foundation by Michael, landing hundreds of feet away. They lost everything.
"I remember when we cut onto 36th Street and the house was gone. That was the worst pain I'd ever felt in my life. It was painful and it was complete fear. 'What do we do?' But we're here and we're alive," June said.
She and her husband decided to stay in Mexico Beach, but they couldn't find a home to rent so they improvised.
"Welcome to my savings account! Literally," June said pointing to her 24-foot camper. "This is our home that consists of me and my husband, three dogs, and two cats. It gets pretty cramped but it's home."
On October 10, 2018, our CBN News crew walked the streets of Mexico Beach with search and rescue crews. What we found when we returned to do this follow-up didn't look much different from the disaster zone we left.
"[It's] caveman world," said June. "No internet, no cable where we're at, so we have a lot of family time."
"80 percent of our city was destroyed," Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey said.
"So coming back is going to be a slow process. To date, eight months and counting, we have no grocery store, we have no gas station, we have no bank – pretty much basic amenities when you think of a city," he continued.
Processing the Trauma of Loss
Mayor Cathey tries to focus on how his town is coming together instead of all they've lost. Still, he's had some trauma to process and that's not easy for him.
"The morning of October 10th I walked from my house the whole length of 98. Everything that I knew for 66 years as far as landmarks...I would identify Frank's house with the green roof, or that's where Johnny lives with the blue porch, all that was gone," Cathey said.
"I went through about 48 hours of, I guess you have to gather yourself, I did...I cried and I prayed and I did all the things that you emotionally go through when you see so much devastation and I told myself that Friday morning, 'OK, I've done this now, you be positive, you do what you can for people, you hug 'em, you shake their hand and you talk about our community, what we have left of it, and how we're going to deal with it,' you know, that's what got me through," he said.
Throughout the Panhandle, our crew heard the same stories; residents trying to process all they've lost, and seeing homes, hospitals, and businesses sitting just as Michael left them.
Rebuilding the People
That's the case for Lighthouse Church in Panama City Beach. It took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, losing the roof of its sanctuary. Our crew toured the wreckage last year after the storm. Today it sits in the same condition.
"It's a process. We're still in the process right now...we're still trying to figure out what that process looks like," said Jorge Fajardo, the youth pastor at Lighthouse Church.
Instead of focusing on its building, the church has focused on its people.
"We've made so many connections outside of our community, through the kingdom...we've connected to cultures and churches all around the state bringing in resources and really trying to push that, resources and the love of Christ, into the community," said Fajardo.
"Before you can rebuild a building you have to rebuild the people. If we can instill the hope and the hunger and the passion in the people, the buildings will fly up. But it starts with making sure that the person knows that they're loved, that they matter, and we do that through our connections," Fajardo continued.
What's the Hold-Up?
Even as the Church works to provide hope, you can't help but wonder, 'What's the hold-up in recovery efforts?'
It's multi-faceted but ultimately comes down to funding.
FEMA is offering a reimbursement program, but towns like Mexico Beach can't afford to pay for recovery upfront and then send in a receipt.
"This town has a budget of $3.5 million annual budget. Our debris bill alone is over $60 million," explained Mayor Cathey.
Residents face battles with insurance and mortgage companies, plus there's the Disaster Funding Package. It was delayed for seven months as President Trump and Democrats bickered over efforts to add money toward Puerto Rico's continued recovery from Hurricane Maria as well as the crisis at the US border with Mexico.
By the time the federal funding passed, the 2019 hurricane season had already begun.
"To be honest with you, it never crossed my mind that it was hurricane season," Mayor Cathey said. "I mean look at us – we're still crippled, we're still barren, we're very vulnerable and there's not anything we can do about it."
As residents in the Panhandle continue to dig out and make do, they wonder when help will come or if their coast really has been forgotten.