Hurricane Michael’s Recovery Lessons for a Panama City Manager

Among the lessons learned in Panama City from the storm is the inadequacy of the widely accepted guidance that people need to have water, food and other resources to sustain themselves for three days after a hurricane.

by Jim Thompson, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach / September 17, 2019
Michael Nelson points to the small room where he took shelter during Hurricane Michael on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018 at the Cedar Grove Mobile Home Park in Panama City, Fla. The mobile home park sustained heavy damage from Hurricane Michael which resulted in many residents being displaced after the hurricane. AP

(TNS) — "Pray."

That one word, delivered with both a smile and sincerity, was retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mark McQueen's response to the question of what people can do for Panama City as it continues to dig out from the devastation of Hurricane Michael, the Category 5 storm that chewed across the city for four hours on Oct. 10 of last year.

Along with his request for prayer, McQueen, who had started work as city manager in Panama City just days before the storm hit, went through a litany of near-biblical statistics regarding the storm's impact on the community during a Monday morning presentation at the Seaside Institute. Monday marked the closing sessions of a three-day institute symposium on using the principles of New Urbanism — walkable streets, varied land uses in close proximity, and human-scaled development — in communities recovering form disaster.

The storm, McQueen said, left 3.6 million cubic yards of debris, killed power for 12 days, and trashed the communications and utilities infrastructure. As just one example, the storm left 124 of the city's 127 sewage "lift stations" inoperable, forcing raw sewage into the streets.

Debris has continued to be an issue, McQueen said, its mere ongoing presence becoming "an incredible psychological scar to our community." And, he added, debris has been the source of a continuing problem, as it clogs drainage ditches and creates flooding problems in places where those problems had not previously existed. "It was just a big doggone storm, and it hit us pretty hard," McQueen said. As it rebuilds, the city is looking to the principles of New Urbanism to reshape itself, he said, but he also took the dozens of people at Monday's session through the city's immediate response to the storm.

"We were in calamity and chaos," he said. "There were lots of things ... that had to be dealt with."

A first priority, he said, was to ensure that people knew they were secure in the immediate aftermath. So the city's police cars hit the streets, with lights flashing. (There were some consequences to that decision, McQueen said, as storm debris caused 80 flat tires on police vehicles in the first 24 hours).

"It was important for citizens to know that somebody was close by," McQueen explained. "If you could see that faint little blue light, you knew that law enforcement was close."

Somewhat surprisingly, McQueen said, in the immediate aftermath, people weren't as interested in having their electricity restored, or taking a hot shower, as they were in contacting family and friends.

"What they really wanted to do was to touch a loved one," McQueen said. Sadly, the community's primary cell phone service provider, Verizon, was down. The communications company subsequently acknowledged its failure and is making amends by making Panama City one of the first cities in the country to get next-generation 5G wireless service. But in the hours after the storm, McQueen said, the city was conducting its business on a cell phone belonging to a city employee who had AT&T cellular service.

Also, McQueen said, the city had to deal with the fact that its two hospitals were damaged so severely that only their emergency departments were left operating, and they served largely as triage centers from which patients were transferred to other facilities. In the meantime, the more than 300 patients already in the two hospitals had to be taken elsewhere by helicopter or ambulance. And, McQueen said, there were other people who were living in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities that had to be moved, and people needing dialysis and other medical services that were no longer available.

"How do you take care of people who can't take care of themselves?" McQueen asked. "Medical care was something that had to be rapidly integrated into our planning process post-storm."

Among the lessons learned in Panama City as a result of the storm is the inadequacy of the widely accepted guidance that people need to have water, food and other resources to sustain themselves for three days after a hurricane. McQueen now suggests that a week of supplies is a more realistic standard.

"Most people were ill-equipped for what was about to happen," McQueen said. In an attempt to meet those basic needs, the city established "comfort stations," air-conditioned tents where people could get food and water, get a shower, use their wireless devices and charge their cell phones.

But even now, as the city continues digging out from Hurricane Michael, the Category 5 storm is on the verge of creating 10 years of consequences for the city. Before the storm, the city's population was about 38,000, McQueen said, but as people have left to find jobs and housing elsewhere, the population has dropped to somewhere between 26,000 and 28,000. That loss of population will be reflected in the 2020 decennial census, which forms the basis for allocation of federal dollars.

"This four-hour hour event called Michael is about to have a 10-year punitive effect, and it was just the function of being a storm at the end of the decade," McQueen said.

Nonetheless, the city is embarking on an effort to remake itself, with the unabashed goal, McQueen said, of becoming "the premier city on the Florida Panhandle." That effort will focus, among other things, on revitalizing the downtown area, opening up the city's waterfront, making infrastructure more resilient and planting 100,000 trees to replace those lost in the storm.

"We have to focus on quality of life," McQueen said.

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©2019 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)

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