Oct. 9--One year after Category 5 Hurricane Michael barreled over the Florida Panhandle and into Georgia, Mexico Beach is urgently working to bring in more visitors, thousands of Panama City families are still "couch surfing," a prison with critically needed jobs remains shuttered in Marianna and tarps still cover hundreds of homes in south Georgia.
The year of recovery has meant victories finally over mountains of debris, exhausted budgets of cities and counties, communities unified as never before and realizations that many things will never rebound.
"I didn't have a clue of where we would be a year after ...," said Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey of the natural apocalypse that struck his Panhandle city Oct. 10 last year. "We still have a high spirit."
From landfall at the beachside getaway, the storm kept its hurricane strength until central Georgia and dumped heavy rain as far along its path as New Jersey. Michael was blamed for 16 deaths and nearly $25 billion in damage in the U.S., according to the National Hurricane Center.
In Mexico Beach, where homes and businesses south of U.S Highway 98 were largely bulldozed by 14 feet of wave-topped storm surge, most tree and building debris has been removed.
"Now we need to get back in business," Cathey said of a push to reopen rental properties, restaurants and mom-and-pop stores. "We can't sit here with our hands out for charity."
Cathey said the city's progress includes extensive restoration of utilities, a rewriting of rules for construction and a surge of applications in the past 90 days for homes and business building permits: 44.
"Our No. 1 need is to get our rental inventory open," Cathey said. "We can't sustain our recovery without visitors."
Another economic driver still largely out of action is St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, which juts into the Gulf of Mexico about a dozen miles south of Mexico Beach.
With a previous 300,000 visitors annually, the park had generated an estimated $22 million in local economic impact. Now, only a portion of park beach is open for day visits.
Florida's park service plans to rebuild roads, water and sewer systems and a pair of campgrounds. But the cost and timing remain unknown.
"There are so many factors; there is no good answer for that yet," said Warren Poplin, the area's park service bureau chief.
From the window of an airliner crossing Mexico Beach, the path of buildings and vegetation shredded by the storm was plainly visible months afterward.
Also not hard to see was that Callaway and Panama City weren't precisely at landfall -- which occurred between Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base -- but were caught in the destructive churn.
"We are much better off but nowhere near where we need to be," said Mark McQueen, city manager for Panama City.
"More than 80 percent of the structures in our city -- houses and businesses -- were damaged or destroyed," McQueen said. "It's been a long slog, with having to overcome issues with insurance, then a shortage of skilled tradesmen, roofers, carpenters, etc."
The city remains in a bind of not being able to get workers because there isn't enough housing for them, but it is unable to build housing without workers, McQueen said.
More than 25 percent, or as many as 9,000 residents, moved outside of the city, including to the west in the relatively intact Panama City Beach.
McQueen said nearly 5,000 Panama City public-school students and their families are still "couch surfing, and not in a home of any permanent type."
The city's initial bill for debris and repairs to utilities was $153 million, a cost that may take years to recover from FEMA.
Panama City had $14 million in reserves, "a very healthy reserve," McQueen said, but had to borrow $75 million initially and expects to borrow another $25 million soon.
But more businesses are reopening every week, boosting the local economy and reviving sales-tax revenues. A post-storm drop in assessed property values was partly offset when city commissioners raised the tax rate in September.
The trauma has had the upside of encouraging a cohesive vision for the city's direction, McQueen said.
"It's exciting to see the potential," McQueen said. "We are going to be the premier city of the Panhandle."
About 20 miles to the northeast, in the tiny burg of Broad Branch in Calhoun County, David Stone and his family relied on a generator for 29 days after the storm. They washed clothes in a wheelbarrow, bought gasoline in Georgia and cooked meals on a barbecue grill.
"It seems like five years ago," Stone said.
He and his wife own a building-contractor business, having two employees -- themselves -- and hiring subcontractors. Business was modest before Michael.
Now they are building four homes, remodeling others and turning down work "all the time."
He is working for friends, neighbors and acquaintances in rural Calhoun County. The financial challenges are familiar and shared: high deductibles, low-ball settlements or little to no insurance.
Meanwhile, to Stone's amazement, the social and political ground is shifting beneath the traditional agricultural mainstay of timber, which was crushed by Hurricane Michael.
With a new state law this year, landowners along the storm's path are moving to embrace hemp as a cash crop, which has uses for clothing, animal feed, packaging and building products.
"We are battling back," Stone said.
To the north, Marianna's city manager, Jim Dean, worries his city at Interstate 10 an hour west of Tallahassee will struggle to grow and thrive.
Dean has kept an eye on the city's water, sewer and natural gas accounts. The number dropped by 130 in the past month, which means fewer residents and less essential income for the city's budget.
Marianna is 60 miles from where Michael made landfall. Yet the storm was able to ravage two, critical contributors to the economy.
Florida Caverns State Park has partly reopened; a federal prison that employed more than 400 has not.
"We were told it would open in March or April, and then in August or September," Dean said. "Meanwhile, the city bills are still coming due."
Michael ranks as one of Florida's strongest hurricanes. When it crossed the Chattahoochee River into Georgia -- more than 80 miles northeast of landfall -- it became that state's most fearsome storm on record.
A few miles past the river, Michael barged into Donalsonville, a city of about 3,000. Dozens of school rooms were wrecked, the high school stadium was left unusable and the amount of debris was beyond comprehension.
Mayor Dan Ponder said his community a year the destruction draws to mind someone who had been in a car accident; healing, walking but scarred and hurting.
"I'm not in any way minimizing the progress we've made," Ponder said.
But, he added, only a portion of hotels, gas stations and restaurants have reopened. Hundreds of streetlights are still broken. Hiring a building contractor is difficult and, at last count, 275 homes in the city and surrounding Seminole County are still under blue tarps.
That tarp count is significant because the battles with FEMA and insurance companies are largely over, Ponder said. Those residents with damaged roofs a year after the storm have little ability to get repairs, he said.
Faith groups, construction companies, material vendors and local governments are sharing in fixing roofs; but the damage often is extensive throughout homes and includes mold infestations.
"So many people have moved away and so many have no way to move away," Ponder said.
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