Five years ago Hurricane Michael crashed into Florida’s Panhandle. The storm devastated the communities in its path. Homes, jobs and lives were lost. Today, many of the residents who lived through the disaster say they’re still struggling to recover.
In Mexico Beach new homes are under construction as far as the eye can see, a few new businesses have opened and tourists have returned—helping to boost the economy, but the storm’s scars remain both on the area’s landscape and its people.
“Michael has a lot to answer for,” says John Burgess who is visiting the beach on this day, but lives about 30 minutes away in Panama City.
“Even again pulling in here—I remember coming here before the storm we had all the condos and everything on the parking lot here and now it’s just empty land and it’s kind of heart breaking. We’re supposed to have recovered and got over it, but it really hasn’t,” Burgess says.
Burgess lost his home to Hurricane Michael. After the storm, he and his wife were out of work for months. Limited housing stock due to widespread damage meant skyrocketing rent and finding a new place to live was hard. Even now, Burgess says the home he and his wife live in still has hurricane Damage.
“My wife has got a job as a pre-K teacher now and even with the money we make together, it is really hard to find some place we could afford,” Burgess says.
Even now, five years later, after many homes have been rebuilt through both private investment and government help, Burgess says costs remain high and availability remains low. He’s not the only one who feels safe and affordable housing is one of the biggest obstacles facing families as they work to recover following Michael.
“I’ve actually had a lot of friends of mine who’ve had to move since Hurricane Michael,” says area resident Jake Warrington. He says another barrier to recovery is employment.
After the storm many local businesses shuttered—some because of damage, or because they had no access to electricity, and others because no workers were available. Warrington says now many of the local businesses that used to give the community a unique sense of character are gone.
“There used to be all kinds of cool stuff around here. There used to be oyster shacks, arcades, thrift stores.”
Warrington says sometimes he feels so frustrated by the area’s slow recovery he considers leaving. But he wants to stay and help the place he calls home start to fee like home again.
“The healing process is what sucks. I don’t see Panama City, Youngstown, Mexico Beach—any of the places that used to be home being home for at least another 20 years,” Warrington says.
While many of the residents on Florida’s Forgotten Coast says they feel just that—forgotten, they are determined to remember what their bright, vibrant communies used to be and to keep slowly working to help it recover.