First Hurricane Michael hammered the Panhandle. Now survivors fear fires, floods

Elizabeth Koh, Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau on

Published in Weather News

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- When Rodney Andreasen first emerged from the wreckage of Hurricane Michael last October, the Jackson County emergency management director realized nearly everything he knew was gone.

The log cabin home he had intended to retire to was lost. The roads in his inland, rural county were choked with fallen trees. The roofing from the county's emergency management office had been partially shorn away.

State and federal officials descended upon the Panhandle, promising help. But eight months after Michael's impact, Andreasen and other residents across Florida's northwest are still digging out from the hurricane's ruin. Millions of rural acres are still marked by swaths of toppled or twisted trees. Parts of the Panhandle remain dotted with piles of twisted metal and other detritus that have yet to be cleared.

As a long-awaited $19.1 billion disaster relief bill is finally poised to send more federal aid to Florida's Panhandle, it's unclear how much help will reach people on the ground, or when it will arrive. Even if this season is quiet for the storm-stricken Panhandle, as it has been in years past, it could take weeks or months for money to trickle down into awarded grants or government assistance -- and the debris still remaining has posed new dangers.

The downed trees have fed stronger wildfires, debris has clogged waterways and changed floodplains, and materials washed offshore by the storm have snarled shrimpers' and fishermen's catches along the coast, to say nothing of ongoing fears of more mosquito-borne disease and invasive insects.

In March, more than 650 acres burned outside Panama City before firefighters extinguished the blaze. Low-lying Washington County was inundated with rain during a wet winter that raised the levels in major waterways by several feet. Eighty-five percent of the forest debris that has contributed to both problems -- much of it on private land -- has yet to be cleared, and much of it never will.

And in the meantime -- storm-stricken Panhandle residents must worry about what once seemed an outside possibility -- another storm that might hit a still struggling-to-rebuild community that fears it has been forgotten.

"I told someone the other day it's unusual to be the director but also a survivor and a victim of the storm," said Andreasen recently. He and his family are still living with relatives while they find somewhere new to live, and he received a settlement from his insurance company only last week. The county's emergency management office is still undergoing repairs.

Andreasen's job means he needs to prepare for an unthinkable second storm. But recovering from the last one, he noted, has never really ended.

Before last year's hurricane season, the Panhandle had historically been spared from major storms. But Michael, retroactively upgraded to a Category 5 by forecasters, brought with it 155 mph winds that steamrolled through the state from the coast through the Georgia border.


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