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CBS: Returning to Panama City after Hurricane Michael

BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WIAT) — Nine months have passed since Hurricane Michael ravaged the Florida Panhandle and neighbors are still picking up the pieces.

The storm, which made landfall on October 10, 2018, resulted in more than 40 deaths. CBS 42 sent a crew to Bay County, Florida to follow up with some of the families impacted.

“It’s like I am still in a nightmare; this is crazy,” said Stacy Cyrus, who was living in an apartment at the Housing Authority of Springfield when the hurricane swept through.

While there are signs of rebuilding in the area, neighbors in some communities said progress is moving at a snail’s pace. Many wonder when life might return to some sense of normalcy.

“I looked and I’m like, ‘Where am I?’ There’s so many buildings gone, so many apartments gone, people gone,” Cyrus lamented.

Like many in the aftermath of the storm, Cyrus and her son left Florida, moving in with family in New York. 

“I thought this would have brought everyone closer together, but it hasn’t,” she said.

Now back in Bay County, Cyrus is on the hunt for a job and a place to live, the latter of which has been very difficult.

“Apartments that were once $600 [will now cost] $1,500 [for] a one bedroom,” she said.

In neighboring Panama City, Mayor Greg Brudnicki said many rental apartments were damaged in the storm.

“We probably had between 2,800 and 2,900 (apartments) destroyed, only had 1,500 available for people to live in, so there is a lot of displacement,” Brudnicki said.

Several homes, businesses and churches that were damaged nine months ago remain untouched. In Panama City, crews have been working to clear debris.

“We’ve picked up some 37 million cubic yards of debris just in the city since the night of the storm, which was, believe it or not, 37 years’ worth of debris,” Brudnicki said.

In addition to debris removal, Mayor Brudnicki said workers had to clear 35 miles of storm water ditches to prevent flooding.

Brudnicki said he is pleased that the city had money in the reserves, but added that leaders have had to borrow millions of dollars while they continue wait for aid from the federal and state government.

Plans for Tyndal Air Force Base are especially important to Panama City.

“Eighty percent of the people that work at Tyndal Air Force Base live in our city. There’s only 15% to 20% that live on base, so we have to be the life support system for that area,” Brudnicki said.

Past Tyndal, downed trees remain ubiquitous along Highway 98 to Mexico Beach. The road closes just outside the small beach city, which looks like a ghost town under repair.

All along the Florida Panhandle, cities are starting to see the economy pick up.

“Every business that opens is a success,” Brudnicki said.

Since the storm, volunteers have logged more than 800,000 hours helping neighbors clean up.

Nearby Panama City Beach was spared from major damage. A spokesperson for the popular resort area said approximately 40% of the city’s workforce lives in the hurricane-affected area.

The lack of housing has created a labor shortage for some Panama City Beach businesses.

Even though Panama City is a separate municipality from Panama City Beach, the economy is connected.

“Thank God the beach didn’t get destroyed, because they’ve been able to keep blowing and going and that helps us, you know. They’ve kind of been the life boat in town,” Brudnicki said.

Bay County Emergency Services Chief Mark Bowen said the road to recovery will be a long one.

“It’s going to take a lot longer, before anybody can look back and say OK, we’re anywhere close to being finished with this,” Bowen said.

However, Bowen said there is a silver lining in the catastrophe. Many neighbors evacuated populated areas and the hurricane’s path could have been far more deadly than it was.

“If you had picked that storm up and moved it 50 miles to the west, we could have had thousands, tens of thousands of people perish,” he said.

The county is still working with cities to asses damage. In the event of a future hurricane, Bowen cautioned residents to remember what happened in October.

We always tell people that 911 is not going to work. You’re going to be alone for a period of days, and nobody is going to be able to get to you, and it is one thing to be able to say that to a room full of people at the rotary club, it’s another thing to have lived through it and see that anguish. BAY COUNTY EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT CHIEF MARK BOWEN

For neighbors like Cyrus, the landscape will never be the same with most of her friends have relocated elsewhere because of housing or work. However, despite the hardships, Cyrus is glad to be back home, where her life was spared and forever changed from a hurricane. She has been reunited with her son and she is thankful.

“He said, ‘Things will get better,’ and I have him, so I’m glad,” Cyrus said. “I’m trying to start over.”

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