Preparedness

Hurricane Michael: Gulf County, Fla., Approved for Disaster Housing

Right now, the biggest challenges are restoring power to the county's entire north end and providing housing for those displaced and left without a home by Michael.

by Tim Croft, The Star, Port St. Joe, Fla. / November 2, 2018
This aerial photo shows a home smoldering, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Fla. The devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael came into focus Thursday with rows upon rows of homes found smashed to pieces, and rescue crews began making their way into the stricken areas in hopes of accounting for hundreds of people who may have stayed behind. AP/Michael Snyder

(TNS) — Three weeks ago, on the evening of the catastrophe that was Hurricane Michael, anybody predicting that most of Gulf County, Fla., would have major services within a month might have been considered hurricane-shocked.

Nonetheless, three weeks following the unwelcome arrival of the third-most intense storm to hit the continental U.S., more than 80 percent of the county has power and a higher percentage has water.

Internet is still an issue and phone communication conjures remembrances of once upon on time calling from the dead zone called St. Joseph Peninsula, but overall the progress, given the severity of the storm, has been remarkable.

"Looking at the big picture, everything is going great, things are moving at warp speed," said county Emergency Management Director Marshall Nelson.

"We are way ahead of the best schedule we could have asked, but we are always going to have some hiccups."

Right now, the biggest challenges are restoring power to the county's entire north end and providing housing for those displaced and left without a home by Michael.

The latter is obviously a significant issue in a county where 1,146 homes were completely destroyed, 1,826 structures sustained major damage and 3,524 sustained what is considered minor damage.

This week the county was notified that it qualified for disaster housing.

Nelson said that would likely mean the FEMA trailer program that was disbanded after Hurricane Katrina.

"Most of the rental housing in the county is coastal," Nelson noted.

Much of that, he added, was damaged or will be rented to those who already reserved their space for a future visit.

"Our housing market is gone (after Michael). We don't have places to rent," Nelson added.

The FEMA process, as explained by state officials during a meeting on housing last week, considers the population impacted by a natural disaster as something of an inverted triangle.

At the top of that pyramid are homeowners who through insurance or some other mechanism, SBA loan, FEMA reimbursement, will qualify for assistance through other programs.

As FEMA works down that pyramid, as those eligible for other programs are made whole and drop away from the process, what is left are those not eligible for other programs.

Those are the displaced people emergency housing aims to assist, starting with those still in shelters in Honeyville and Oak Grove Church.

And, Nelson said, a significant number of those who lost their homes will ultimately be found at the bottom of that pyramid.

"I know the process, but what we need is to expedite the process," Nelson said. "We know, because in this county everybody knows everybody, that there are going to be people who need that housing.

"The next steps are disaster housing and the displaced."

County Administrator Michael Hammond said during a special meeting last week that there are no county ordinances, rules or regulations which prevent the deployment of FEMA trailers in the county.

Further, Hammond said the city of Port St. Joe had relaxed certain rules to allow FEMA trailers within the city.

Contrary to rumors on social media, Hammond emphasized, there are no local restrictions to the FEMA trailers.

And, Commissioner Ward McDaniel emphasized, it was important for residents to register with the FEMA disaster recovery center at the public library.

FEMA, McDaniel and Nelson said, can only address needs it can quantify and that is what the FEMA and SBA application processes accomplish.

On the power front, Gulf Coast Electric Cooperative continues to work on the north end issues, with about 18 percent of its customers in the county still without power as of press time.

The issue is damage to main transmission lines coming out of Georgia, but Nelson noted the Co-Op stepped up and deployed generators widely to bring power back up for most of the north end.

On the south end, the fact that nearly the entire area had power less than 10 days after the storm was, Nelson said, remarkable.

"Duke Energy, they deserve a gold star," he said.

As for water to north of the Stump Hole on St. Joseph Peninsula, replacement of nearly a mile of sewer line has been completed by the city of Port St. Joe and replacement of water line the same distance was near completion by Lighthouse Utilities.

"The city of Port St. Joe and (Lighthouse) really jumped on that," Nelson said. "The only thing holding them up was getting the (Florida Department of Transportation) to mark the new right-of-way."

Other than those with wells and no power, that area is the last major section of the county without running water.

Debris removal in some areas was not going as fast as hoped, or as in other areas, but Nelson said contractor Ash Britt had added more trucks and established additional lay down yards to facilitate faster, more efficient removal.

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