On Oct. 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall on the Gulf Coast near Panama City, Florida. It was the first Category 5 storm ever to hit the Panhandle.
A smallish storm, in terms of diameter — nowhere near the size of Hurricane Florence, for example — Michael nevertheless packed a powerful punch, scything through the area with sustained winds of 160 mph. It wreaked havoc on Panama City and completely destroyed nearby Mexico Beach.
In its aftermath, government agencies and charitable organizations descended on the Panhandle. As I wrote last November, my wife and I spent a weekend there with a group from our church, cutting up and hauling away downed trees, as a very small part of a very large effort.
A year later, I can report the effort is ongoing. Bonnie and I recently had another opportunity to visit Panama City, which we called home from 1989-1994. The trip was mostly for pleasure, but it also afforded us the opportunity to observe the area’s progress — or lack thereof.
First, some good news. I commented last year on the acres upon acres of blue-tarped roofs and flattened pine trees. I’m happy to report that many, perhaps most of those homes have now been repaired — the ones that were repairable, at least — and the damage to the landscape is not as severe as I first thought.
Thankfully, the 80-foot longleaf pine, perhaps North Florida’s most recognizable floral feature, has not become extinct. Many trees still stand, and my earlier prediction that it might be 50 years before the coast again looks as it did before the storm now seems unnecessarily pessimistic.
Most businesses are back up and running. Last November, we had a hard time finding an open fast-food restaurant. Now the nutritionally-challenged can find ready sustenance.
The news, unfortunately, is not all positive. For many, the suffering continues. In our old neighborhood, we saw people still living in RVs parked in their driveways, waiting for their homes to again be inhabitable. Other neighborhoods — like the once-exclusive Lynn Haven Country Club — remain in utter shambles.
One old friend informed me proudly that, just last week, builders finally poured the foundation for his new home —on the same site where his former home was literally flattened by the storm over a year ago.
Another friend confided in me her concerns that so many people, especially young people, have simply left the area, perhaps never to return. She also noted an uptick in Bay County's suicide rate over the past year.
And even though the longleaf pine will no doubt endure, for now the landscape is still dominated by thousands of snapped tree-trunks.
The storm may be long gone, but for many the pain lingers. Please continue to pray for the people of Panama City and Mexico Beach as they recover from the physical and psychological wounds inflicted by Michael.