Panhandle Children Continue to Suffer After Hurricane Michael

Many of the kids are still homeless, and show signs of fear, anxiety and depression. School officials are concerned they may end up with a mental health crisis if they don’t get the help they are desperately requesting.

by Jim McKay / June 20, 2019
An American flag hangs on a bent pole in front of the Presbyterian school downtown, the day after Hurricane Michael landed in Panama City as a Category 4 hurricane in Florida's Panhandle on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. TNS

The Florida Panhandle routinely experiences thunderstorms and bad weather. But to many of the Panhandle’s children, nothing is routine since the devastation caused by Hurricane Michael, the Category 5 hurricane that devastated much of the area last October.

Many of the Panhandle’s children are showing signs of fear, anxiety and depression, and officials fear it’s only going to get worse.

Many of the children have “flashbacks” when bad weather hits the area and wonder if the same conditions present during the hurricane are returning, according to Sharon Michalik, communications director for the Bay District Schools.

“We’ve had a string of bad thunderstorms since the hurricane, and during those storms teachers report to us that students, especially the younger ones, are very stressed and wonder if they must go in the bathrooms and sit the storm out like last time. They wonder if their homes will still be there and if the water will still be running, and if the phones will still work,” Michalik said.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the recovery has been a slow process and many children are out of their homes or apartments. Many are still in tents. About 75 percent of the rental apartments were damaged and many families are living in homes with tarps on the roof.

I’ve never seen anything like this,” Michalik said. “It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s post-apocalyptic still. There are streets in our community where houses are completely untouched [since the storm] because people either had no insurance or are battling with their insurance or are waiting to hear from a contractor. There are not enough contractors in town.”

The homeless population in the Panhandle prior to Hurricane Michael was 782. Since the storm, that number has risen to more than 5,000. Children are not living on the streets, but many don’t have a fixed address where they go every day but move from couch to couch.

“When disasters strike, and children are affected, their vulnerability may be in terms of physical impacts. They also may experience psychological or educational impacts,” said Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in a FEMA PrepTalk. “Children may be subject to post-traumatic stress disorder, they may experience depression, or anger. They may, when it comes to their schooling, have delay, diminished educational attainment or even drop out of school.”

There are 43 schools in the district and all of them sustained some damage. About 4,000 students never returned to school. Many of them were elementary students whose parents took them out of town to a relative or other location. The district lost about 25 percent of its elementary school students.

Michalik said the county just got its first FEMA reimbursement for “mitigation that happened right after the storm.” She said they are still awaiting help for reconstruction and are in desperate need of mental health resources.

“That’s been very frustrating. We have leveraged every resource we have locally and worked with every community partner agency to put the resources into the schools,” she said. “But we have yet to receive one dollar from anybody for mental health resources.”

Michalik said officials have written as many grant applications as they could think of to try to tap eligible funds. One pending application with the federal government is a three-year proposal that would provide the district with a team of licensed mental health professionals in the schools.

“I believe that’s what we need to do,” she said. “The superintendent’s biggest concern is that the short-term issue of Hurricane Michael — if we don’t deal with the mental health needs of the students — will become a long-term obstacle for their recovery.”

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