Trees split houses in half. Apartment buildings were issuing eviction notices. Winds ripped the sides off buildings, exposing the paint color of every room inside. Nursing homes were buried in debris.
It seemed like there would be nowhere left to live and community leaders braced themselves for a mass exodus.
"You can drive around town and see that we've lost people," said County Commissioner Phillip 'Griff' Griffitts. "There are apartment complexes without any cars in the parking lot."
But three months after Hurricane Michael, a
An exact number of people who have moved out of the county does not exist, but a look at school enrollment, voter registration data, water accounts and building inspection data suggests that only a small fraction of the region's population have left the area. A request to the
Here's what we did find:
* About 3,349 water accounts in unincorporated
* Since the storm, 1,299
All of these numbers only tell a small piece of the story and have many caveats.
Water accounts are perhaps the best example of data with caveats. Shut-offs are normal during any period of time. Some people have likely left and not shut off their water accounts and conversely, there are probably households that are still living in temporary housing in the county, but have shut their water off. Similarly, voter registration is not the first priority for a lot of people and some are ineligible to register. And school data only applies to families with school-aged children.
Plus, there's a lot of fluctuation still happening.
That fluctuation is called "churning" and as
"There is always 'churning' of the population after an event in which housing is damaged and destroyed, since residents need to find temporary housing if they can no longer live in their home," Fussell said in an email. "The period of time in which churning happens is proportional to the damage, so that may be longer in this case because there was so much damage. But most churning is within the region."
With nearly 9,000 homes with moderate damage and over 6,000 homes with major damage in
But there are already some signs that people are returning. After the storm, the
Anecdotally, there are also stories of people, such as young couple Joey and
The Milners left to stay with family in
"(There were) no jobs unless you wanted to work part time at minimum wage and housing there was getting close to what it used to cost to live here," Milner said. When a friend offered him a job with good pay and full time hours in
This lines up with Fussell's findings. She has researched population shifts from every major storm from 1980 to 2012 and found that in low-density counties (like
"The population trend in
One study from 2013 even found that a county experiencing
This is good news for people like
"I thought it was going to be much more of a ghost town, and we've some reduction but not a huge one," he said. "Dillard's was still packed on
At this point, McQueen feels the numbers are going to start to either stabilize or grow as people come back and recovery workers -- like contractors -- move in knowing there will be stable work for the next few years.
"Dates drive decisions, and by
Right now, he added, will likely be a period of "slow going" as people wait for funds, both public and private, to hit their bank accounts. But come late spring and into the summer, he sees a big influx of money coming, and with that, population and economic growth.
Research shows mega-storms often come with that kind of silver-lining.
"When hurricanes in the past decade have been very costly, future population growth tends to be greater," one study wrote. Going on to say, "substantial hurricane-related monetary losses over the past decade have promoted investment in those places."
Signs of investment are already popping up. Griffitts said he's had dozens of calls from around the county of from people who see "opportunity" in
"We're trying to build a community so our kids don't have to leave," Griffitts said. "We're going to right this ship."
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