Destruction & rebuilding in the Panhandle one year after Michael

News4Jax returns to hardest hit areas 12 months after Category 5 hurricane

By Jennifer Ready - Reporter, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

It's been one year since Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle. It made landfall on Oct. 10, 2018, as a Category 5 storm -- blamed for 49 deaths in Florida with estimated insured losses now reaching $6.9 billion.

News4Jax reporter Jennifer Ready and videographer Joe Owens returned to the Panhandle to capture new images and stories in the most devastated the area. They found 12 months after the storm hit, residents are struggling, but they're also hopeful for a new beginning.

WATCH: Panama City 1 year after Hurricane Michael |
Mexico Beach 1 year after Michael |
Tyndall Air Force Base 1 year after hurricane

Panama City

It took 12 months, but homeowner Barry Lawley has finally reached an important milestone in moving forward after Hurricane Michael.

"I just got my roof on at 10 o'clock, and it's been almost a year," he told us about his damaged Lynn Haven home while many of his neighbors are still picking up the pieces waiting to finish their own repairs and living in RVs.

As we drove less than 10 miles way into downtown Panama City, we found crews starting to clean up the marina and Civic Center -- a once-popular community spot for boaters, fishermen and event-goers.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis toured the damage in his hometown with News4Jax.

"It should have boats, it should have activity, it should have excitement, it should have people fishing, and right now, it just smells like people fishing. It doesn't have any energy, it's a little bit of a tough reflection -- it really is," Patronis said.

Patronis took us into the Civic Center. The inside is stripped down. And in the auditorium, where entertainers used to perform and kids once graduated, the lights are out until the city decides what's next.

Across the way, as we stepped inside the old Bay County Public Library, the power of a category five hurricane is evident. You can see part of the roof hanging and glass scattered everywhere. The damage is the same as it was after the storm hit -- nothing has changed in 12 months.  

Bay County Public Library in Downtown Panama City one year after Hurricane Michael.

Patronis says there have been roughly 147,000 insurance claims related to Hurricane Michael, totaling nearly $7 billion in insured losses. 

In Bay County, thousands of students have left the district and several schools have been consolidated. Patronis says a major concern is the impact the trauma is taking on students' mental health.  

"We take our schools for granted, you really do, because it gives even our children consistency in our life. So, for instance, you see Bay County Schools has had consolidation of schools, closure of schools. You're shuffling kids around with kids they've never been around, and that trauma takes its toll," Patronis explained.

Although it could be several years until downtown Panama City and other impacted areas are completely restored, Patronis is confident the Panhandle will return to its vibrant self -- even better than before.

Mexico Beach

Images taken from the ground and from the air showed Mexico Beach was absolutely devastated by Hurricane Michael. Days following the storm, debris littered the streets and it was hard to find a home still standing.

But one year later, while the damage is still evident and piles of rubble still sit on abandoned properties, we found construction underway on new homes less than a block from the water with fresh, new sea oats planted along the white, sandy beaches.

Don and Lisa Seger recently moved to Mexico Beach to live fulltime in their RV as they rebuild their retirement home. They say the last 12 months have been life-changing.

"We had planned to retire in about 10 years from now but after the storm and things that happened in our personal life, we felt like we needed to be here and be part of the rebuild," said Don.

The rebuild in Mexico beach is moving along, but it's happening slowly. Some parts look like Michael hit just yesterday. There are many empty lots and some homeowners, like the Segers, are living in RVs.

There is still no gas station, bank or grocery store in town. And, many restaurants are closed or operating out of food trucks. 

Because of the storm, Mexico Beach lost all of its hotels and half of its RV parks -- which translates into a major loss in tourism.

We walked the streets with Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey, who explained the pace of recovery has been longer than what he had hoped.

"What has been the biggest challenge over this year?" we asked the mayor.

"Money," he answered. "We have struggled in working with FEMA and getting financing. FEMA is just a reimbursement program, and we've got to find creative ways to be able to pay, and then we've got a quick turnaround to get that money back."

But despite the many obstacles, the community's resilience and stamina to rebuild has no limit.

"We all tend to have that same positive, glass is half full that we're going to rebuild this, and we're going to make it better. We're going to keep moving forward," said Lisa Seger.

Tyndall Air Force Base

The eye of Hurricane Michael went right through Tyndall Air Force Base, causing billions of dollars in damage.  The category five storm decimated entire buildings and scattered debris across the base. We were allowed back on the base to see what's been done in the last 12 months. While there are continuous efforts to rebuild, there is still a lot of work to be done.

"It was a lot stronger than people thought, a lot stronger than we thought it would be," said Col. Brian Laidlaw, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing.

Thousands of airmen and their families did evacuate ahead of Michael, but Laidlaw and more than 90 others rode out the hurricane in two of the strongest buildings on base. Laidlaw spent hours inside Tyndall's Emergency Management building as the loud and catastrophic wind damaged the roof.

"I'm very glad we got our people out of here. We can fix planes, we can fix buildings, we can fix Air Force bases, but we can't fix people," he said.

The rare Category 5 hurricane damaged almost every building on base, with several support buildings still piles of rubble.

To date, there are no military family homes on base because they were all totaled. And, only a third or so of the dorms are back open. 

While we were on Tyndall last week, we saw crews cleaning up storm debris and tearing down an old hangar that was severely damaged by Michael. It's part of building the Air Force base that they need -- not the base that they had before the storm hit.

Tyndall is repairing half of the base's facilities and tearing down the rest. The goal is to build a base of the future with multi-purpose facilities that are more weather resistant.  The Air Force estimates by the end of this year, roughly $700 million will be spent on repairs.

The Air Force says, even with rebuilding still ongoing, Tyndall is flying more F-22s than they were before the storm. And, Tyndall's staff is back to about 85 percent. Laidlaw emphasized that a lot of the people on base want to be there with some volunteering to be a part of the rebuilding process.

"The state of Florida and this county in particular, Bay County, is a great place to wear the missions' uniform," said Colonel Laidlaw. "This community, much like many communities across the state of Florida, are very supportive of our military -- both our people as well as our mission, and that partnership is very beneficial for all of us as we look to rebuild."

Laidlaw says it could take five to seven years to completely restore Tyndall Air Force Base, but with the support of the community and dedicated airmen, their mission to serve will continue for decades to come.

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