Mark R. Howard
In a speech as she was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in October, Judith Bense, the former president of the University of West Florida in Pensacola, spoke about growing up in Northwest Florida and how life there can be a little tougher than in other parts of Florida. Residents of the Panhandle have to learn to be self-reliant, she said, because, “If you live in Northwest Florida, you learn the cavalry isn’t coming.”
Bense’s remarks were apt. We live in a state of regions that differ widely. Different economic backbones, cultures, civic personalities. Understanding Florida means understanding those differences and how they create different perceptions among Floridians about what Florida is and how it works.
Her comments were also timely. It’s been more than a year since Hurricane Michael devastated more than a dozen counties in the state’s Northwest region. And many in the area feel the cavalry still hasn’t shown up, or at least hasn’t shown up the way it would have elsewhere in Florida.
The storm came ashore in October 2018, the first Category 5 storm to hit the U.S. since Andrew in 1992. After crashing through Mexico Beach, it rolled northward along State Road 71 through Gulf, Bay, Calhoun, Washington and Jackson counties toward the notch where Florida borders Georgia and Alabama.
Most of us in the lower two-thirds of Florida would have trouble finding those counties on a map. The area is rural — Calhoun County, before the storm, had about 20,000 residents, for example; Washington County, about 25,000. Poverty rates tend to run high, around 20%. Small businesses dominate, with a smattering of decent-paying jobs at manufacturing firms and timber operations. However poor, it’s an area where families tend to have roots in their communities and feel a deep connection with the land, their families and their communities.
Michael was a true catastrophe. Mexico Beach — the only part of the region to get any continued publicity since the storm — was obliterated. Inland, Michael was just as devastating. It destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, flattened forests and kneecapped the region’s timber industry. And for the better part of a year, very little happened to help get the region back on its feet. Federal aid was hamstrung by Washington politics. FEMA rejected many applications for aid without telling applicants why they were being turned down; many residents gave up before they learned that it can take several attempts to navigate the federal bureaucracy. The state showed little sense of urgency in responding. It wasn’t until nearly a year after the storm that significant aid began flowing into the area — including $150 million for debris removal in Bay County that Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in October.
Meanwhile, insurance companies have dragged their feet in paying claims — 10 months after the storm, more than $7 billion in claims were still outstanding. In October, former Speaker of the House Allan Bense (Judith Bense’s brother), a man of some wealth and influence, went public with his frustrations with his insurance company, which he said had assigned him seven adjusters in the course of settling the claim for damage to his Panama City home. “Think about the average working man and working woman,” he told reporters ruefully.
Richard Williams, who heads the office of CareerSource, the state’s workforce and training agency, in Chipola in Calhoun County, says the region’s biggest need is housing. The storm destroyed so many homes, he says, that some who are working live in their trucks. Many residents of coastal areas who lost their homes have moved inland, bidding up rents and home prices and displacing residents of the inland areas.
Robert Arnold, executive director of Innovative Charities of Northwest Florida, says higher rents mean many families have had to turn to the food pantry his organization operates. Demand for counseling services — particularly by kids — have skyrocketed. More than 800 children in the county are homeless, and he describes cases where several generations now live crowded together in the home of the family member whose home was least damaged. Churches stage regular “bunk bed-building” get-togethers “so children don’t have to sleep on the floor.” About a third of the homes in Calhoun County, he estimates, still have tarps on the roofs.
The slow pace of grant and insurance money to fund repairs means many homes that might have been saved, he says, will end up with so much mold damage that they’ll have to be torn down. “What we need most right now is building supplies and money to buy building supplies,” Arnold says. (You can donate to Innovative Charities at innovativecharities.org.)
Williams, Arnold and others say that while area residents are grateful that aid seems finally to be flowing, they are still suffering. “The problem is no matter how resilient you are, we’re a year out from the storm, and it’s wearing on them,” says Arnold.
Sadly, residents of the area have a sense that the rest of the state — along with the media — has forgotten them. When South Florida residents rallied to send food and money to the Bahamas after Dorian ravaged the islands this summer, some in Northwest Florida wondered why there had been no similar effort mounted for them, Williams says.
The coast will recover first, Williams says. “Saltwater cures a lot of things.” Longer term, the inland part of Northwest Florida needs attention from state economic developers.
Meanwhile, local residents do what they’ve always done — try to get by. “The worst thing that happened to us was getting hit by a hurricane that didn’t hit Miami or Tampa first,” Williams says. “The response would have been entirely different. That’s just a fact of life when you live in a rural part of state.”
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