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  1. Environment

Oh, Florida! Tips for Hurricane Michael survivors from someone still grappling with Irma

Children's toys sit in front of lingering piles of debris in Panama City. In the Panhandle, people feel forgotten seven months after Hurricane Michael hit. In the Keys, people are still grappling with the fallout two years later. EMILY L. MAHONEY | TIMES
Children's toys sit in front of lingering piles of debris in Panama City. In the Panhandle, people feel forgotten seven months after Hurricane Michael hit. In the Keys, people are still grappling with the fallout two years later. EMILY L. MAHONEY | TIMES
Published May 31, 2019

Earlier this month I took a long drive through the Florida Panhandle, my old stomping grounds. I'm a Panhandle kid who grew up with the Gulf of Mexico always to the south of me. When I moved to this part of Florida, it took me a couple of years to get used to the gulf now being to my west.

My ancestors first arrived in the Panhandle in 1850, apparently trying to get in early on waterfront condos. There was a Pittman who ran the general store in the town of Two Egg in Jackson County, and family lore says he came up with its name. He took a lot of chickens in trade, and the story goes that he said the town was so small it wasn't even worth two eggs. There's even a Pittman Creek flowing through Liberty County, although I've never stopped to find out who it's named after for fear it's some great-grand-uncle who still owes people money.

Seven months have passed since Category 5 Hurricane Michael slammed into the Panhandle and flattened everything in its path. On my drive, I could see that the wounds still remain. Long sections of pine forest are bent over as if bowing in prayer. I saw homes and buildings with blue tarps over what was left of their roofs and mangled metal and busted wood scattered everywhere.

I ate dinner at a waterfront joint in Panama City where the shrimp were fresh and the hush puppies were piping hot. You'd never know by looking at the place that a storm had hit. But around me I could hear other diners discussing insurance claims and federal assistance.

That last one's a pretty touchy subject. A lot of politicians have been ranting and raving and arguing about who's to blame for not getting the Panhandle enough help. They have produced so much hot air that we've reached a hokum level of Category 5.

If I were one of those Bombastic Bobs lobbing promises around like so many paper towel rolls in Puerto Rico, here's the one thing I'd tell all my Panhandle homefolks: You are not alone.

By that I mean you're not the only ones feeling forgotten. There are people in South Florida still grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. You remember Irma, right? It was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall at Cudjoe Key in September 2017.

I called a friend of mine, a former Keys journalist named Larry Kahn who is now spokesman for a Monroe County government agency, to ask him about this. Larry's home was destroyed by Irma. I asked what tips he could offer Michael survivors feeling forgotten in the Panhandle.

Get used to waiting, he said. Every local government is still awaiting federal reimbursement for cleanup costs. People are still fighting with their insurance companies. The effort to clear all the debris out of the Keys' canals — boats, refrigerators, microwaves, you name it — wasn't declared complete until a month ago.

"It stretches everybody's patience," he told me.

Also, he said, be aware that what Michael did in an instant will stay with you a long time. Every day, when he drives seven miles to work, he sees Irma's handiwork: the condo that used to be packed with Canadian snowbirds, now sitting damaged and empty; the Burger King and Pizza Hut that were so badly beat up that they shut down for good; the public parks that are still closed.

As he passes these daily reminders of the disaster, "it's like a little nail being driven into you. … Nothing is going to get back to normal for years and it will never be how it was."

One last thing he said was don't wait around for the government or some charity to help you out: "You are the first responder, and your neighbors are the first responders. You have to rely on your neighbors and friends. That's all you have to get you through."

So as yet another hurricane season begins, here's hoping we're all prepared for it — not just for the storm, but for its long, long aftermath. Otherwise, you're liable to be up Pittman Creek.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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