So, What Is It Like, 9 Months Later?

No, this isn’t about having a baby, nor raising a baby.  Neither am I dipping my pen into the raging moral debate regarding abortion, at least not in this post.

This is an update on the conditions in the Panama City, Florida area 9 months after a cat 5 hurricane.  On October 10th, 2018 hurricane Michael slammed onshore in the Florida Panhandle with wind gusts of more than 200 mph and torrential rains. I wrote four pieces in the following weeks about that event and the immediate aftermath.

EDITOR’S NOTE: SEE KEN’S FOUR-PART SERIES BELOW ⤵︎

A Cat 5 Hurricane As A Teacher – Part IV

Recently a friend in South Florida seemed surprised when I told him about some of the current conditions.  He felt that most people were under the impression that things must be more or less back to normal as the media had dropped all coverage.  Thus the motivation to write about the current conditions here.  However, first, a short refresher course may be in order just to set the stage.

Thousands of people were left with no jobs, no money, and no home.  There was no electric power for 2 or more weeks, no internet for 6-8 weeks, and no cell phone service by most providers.

Hurricane Michael virtually wiped out Mexico Beach, and for weeks people had to wear respirators to be in the area due to decomposing bodies, pets and landed sea life.  It shut down Tyndall Airforce Base due to massive damage, ($1 billion +), severely damaged 80% of the residential units in Bay County with more than half of those either uninhabitable or totally destroyed.  Hundreds of miles of power poles and wire were brought down along with road signs, stop lights, and an untold number of trees.  Buildings, including banks, strip malls, apartment buildings, groceries, gas stations, pharmacies, and restaurants were reduced to piles of rubble.  Thousands of people were left with no jobs, no money, and no home.  There was no electric power for 2 or more weeks, no internet for 6-8 weeks, and no cell phone service by most providers.  Both area hospitals were closed and are even now only partially operational.  That just gives a hint at the massive damage and destruction.  So, with that as a brief background, we go to where we are today.

Several area schools will not be open this fall due to the lack of teachers and students.  Thousands of people have simply moved away.  There are still tent cities and hundreds of Fema trailers dotted around.  Churches (those with a building or a large tent) are still trying to service those in need.  The largest Catholic church, by the last count, had served over 70,000 people with food, diapers, medications, and other needed items.  Many businesses are still empty shells.  Some banks, some restaurants, and many small businesses that were formerly housed in strip malls are now gone.  When driving one must pay close attention because road signs and familiar landmarks are gone.  You used to turn North at the corner where the CVS was across the street from a pawn shop.  Now just two empty lots.

If there are any people that have their lives back to pre-hurricane normal, I have yet to meet them. 

The lab technician I talked to last week said she and her family are living in their garage.  The only part of the house that is habitable.  The two doctors I met with this week both said their homes are still wrecks and there is no end in sight for recovery.  Why the delay in getting people restored?  Well, there are several reasons.

One is that insurance companies are playing the game of outlasting the insured.  A claimant is shuffled from one desk agent to another and each one says part of the file is missing.  The hope is that eventually the insured just gives up on the claim or takes a partial settlement.  Of course, some were under-insured or not insured at all so there is simply no money to make repairs.

Another issue is getting professional service people.  Plumbers, electricians, painters, roofers, gutter and screen companies are simply overwhelmed, at least those that are still in business at all.  Need a plumber?  Expect 4-6 months.  Need a painting bid for the insurance company?  Four phone calls may get a promise from one to give you an estimate in 3 weeks, but of course, never shows.  Need your pool cage rebuilt.  You get no answer from the first two companies you call and the third one has a recording that tells you to call back next year as they are booked through December.  Our roof is being replaced as I write this.  We are hopeful that it will be finished in another 3 weeks, new gutters, then some painting.  House back to “normal” by the end of August?  Maybe.

Where is the government?  Well, there is good news and bad news there.

The good news is that Fema and state, local, and federal agencies performed well, as did President Trump who came here twice to see the damage.  The bad news is that Congress has opted to make this area a political football.  One prominent Democrat in the House, when asked why she was not supporting the hurricane relief bill for the Panhandle, said, “that area supported Trump and voted 70% republican in the last election, so what can they expect?”

There are of course both winners and losers in all this.

Among the winners are roofing companies, other contractors, rental residential properties (rents have almost doubled in 5 months), auto repair shops, grocery stores that are reopened, and sign companies.  Functional small businesses like barber shops, nail salons, computer repair shops and others that were frequently tenets in strip malls have found their competition has been radically reduced and thus they can reap a windfall for the short term.  While it may seem an oxymoron some homeowners that had damage were also winners.  Those that had newer homes built to the latest building codes and those with metal or concrete roofs had less damage than older structures.

One of the two largest grocery chains lost all 5 of their buildings and are still not open.  Regional banks are still closed.  Both hospitals are only partially operational.

It seems pretty obvious who the losers were in all this, but there are some surprises.  Certainly, businesses housed in older structures and strip malls simply were not able to reopen.  Then there were many that, though they had a functional building, simply lost most or all of their employees.  Most businesses have help wanted signs out front.  One of the two largest grocery chains lost all 5 of their buildings and are still not open.  Regional banks are still closed.  Both hospitals are only partially operational.  Many of the area nursing homes are permanently closed. Other surprise losers are local and county governments, their agencies, and school boards.  In short those entities that rely on tax money to function.  Vacant lots don’t pay much in taxes.  Bay County alone has borrowed more than $264,000,000 to clear roads.  That is half of what they need.  Eventually, 90% of that will be reimbursed by federal and state funding, but the remaining 10% along with the major reduction in the tax base will have a long-lasting effect.

Well, this article could become a small book, but the point is that the area has not recovered and it will be years in doing so, even if we aren’t held hostage by “progressive” legislators.

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Ken Vincenthttp://sbpra.com/KennethVincent/
KEN is a 46 year veteran hotelier and entrepreneur. Formerly owned two hotels, an advertising agency, a wholesale tour company, a POS company, a leasing company, and a hotel management company. The hotels included chain owned, franchises, and independents. They ranged in type from small luxury inns, to limited service properties, to large convention hotels and resorts. After retiring he authored a book, “So Many Hotels, So Little Time” in which he relates what life is like behind the scenes for a hotel manager. Ken operated more that 100 hotels and resorts in the US and Caribbean and formed eight companies. He is a firm believer that senior management should share their knowledge and experience with the next generation of management.
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Connie Bramer

Ken, thank you for writing this article and shedding some much needed light on what your area is still facing in the aftermath of this hurricane. I live in Upstate NY and sadly, I had no idea that these poor conditions were ongoing. We hear about these situations when they first occur and somehow assume that life returns to normal shortly thereafter. After all, we do live in the “greatest country in the world.” It is extremely upsetting that the political climate bears so much responsibility for the lack of restoration to people’s lives in the Florida Panhandle. Again, thank you for sharing this.

Danny Pitocco

Thanks Ken for your point-on-point updated description of the horrendous damage and clean-up efforts in the nine-month aftermath of this calamity.

This is indeed a human tragedy in all aspects when the very best as the very worst behavior is exhibited by individuals.

Thank God there were more good guys than bad!

Lynn Forrester-Pitocco

A reality check for sure. Thanks Ken

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