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Census is yet another worry for Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael

Area leaders fear lower population numbers will lead to reduced federal funding and political representation.

MEXICO BEACH — In the places where Hurricane Michael hit hardest last year, officials have a new worry over the 2020 U.S. Census, which they say could record their population as unusually low, skewing federal funding and political representation for up to a decade.

Cities and counties in the storm’s path have suffered lingering population loss, which will not be remedied by the time the Census marks a snapshot of the American people.

“It is where your head is in a bed on the first of April,” said Mark McQueen, city manager of Panama City, which lost up to 25 percent of its population, or potentially about 9,000 residents.

Leaders hope people will return within the next decade, when homes are rebuilt and businesses are reopened. But Census counts will not reflect those intentions.

“Not only did we wait over 200 days for Congress to pass a disaster bill, now we’re getting ready to get screwed by the Census,” said Jim Dean, city manager in Marianna. “It will be a gift that keeps giving for 10 years.”

Related: Related story: Florida insurance companies took months to pay Hurricane Michael claims

The decennial (once every 10 years) Census informs many federal spending formulas. George Washington University looked at 55 large programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Federal Direct Student Loans, Medicaid and Highway Planning and Construction and found that Florida in 2016 received more than $44 billion in allocations guided at least partially by Census data.

Some programs fund local efforts directly, while others channel large pools of money to the state, said Andrew Reamer, the professor who authored the paper. Population counts, he said, get updated over the course of a decade, and anyone who moves back to the Panhandle should eventually be factored into many formulas. But political representation depends only on 10-year totals, used to set legislative districts — meaning lower figures could lead to reduced representation at the state and federal level.

Businesses, too, use population data to decide where to build and invest, Reamer said. Private companies might choose to pass on cities that lost residents.

“Every realm of society depends on those numbers,” he said.

Related: Related story: Hurricane Michael left a Florida ‘ghost town.’ See the before/after pictures.

Bay County leaders expect an overall population decrease from previous levels, though they’re not sure by how much, said Commissioner Robert Carroll. Before the storm, about 183,000 called the area home. Carroll hopes laborers who have moved to the area to work on rebuilding will help mitigate the loss.

“We were in a major growth pattern before the storm, so the last thing we want to do is revert back,” he said.

Bay has historically taken in about $20 million a year in a half-cent sales tax, he said, which it distributes to cities based on the number of residents. That money helps with infrastructure projects like roads and sidewalks.

“If their population is down, then they’re not going to get their fair share for improvements,” Carroll said.

The Census Bureau plans to hand-deliver questionnaires to as many as 3,800 housing units around Mexico Beach, where many homes have been reduced to vacant lots. Administrators are also trying to increase educational efforts to help people around the Panhandle understand how to properly fill out the Census forms.

Related: Related story: A year since Hurricane Michael, what’s left of Mexico Beach?

Even before Michael, the region included sparse districts, where small errors could substantially influence overall population counts. Many residents moved out of town into relatives’ homes or other temporary accommodations. Some who stayed live in travel trailers, and the makeshift housing will pose an added challenge for Census takers, who typically depend on established address lists.

“Missing one person can have a really detrimental effect,” said Corinna Turbes, associate director of the Council of Professional Associations on Federal Statistics.

Officials from Bay and Gulf counties traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk to Census leaders but received few reassurances. The process is dictated by law, and the government will not make an exception in timing. Communities can within the next decade ask for a special census, but local governments would bear that cost, something unpalatable amid so many storm expenses. Panama City, for instance, is already accruing interest on a loan at a rate of $6,000 a day, according to the mayor.

“The localities will have to live with the consequences for at least several years if not more before they feel the time is right to request a special census,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a former staff director for the census oversight subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, R-Panama City, has spoken to local and federal officials about ensuring the Census gets a fair count of his district, according to his office.

Related: Read more of our coverage of Hurricane Michael

An added problem for the Panhandle is that prisoners, who were relocated from facilities damaged by the storm, typically make up a major chunk of the local population.

In Jackson County, population 48,000, that includes as many as 1,200 people moved from a federal correctional institution that might not reopen until next August, according to a recent letter from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Gulf County estimates state prisoners were about 15 percent of its population before Michael, said Warren Yeager, assistant county administrator.

According to the state Department of Corrections, Gulf has 2,125 fewer inmates across multiple facilities, which held 2,887 before the storm. The department did not offer an expected date when the biggest location, Gulf Correctional Institution, will be completely reopened, saying it depends on repairs and when leaders can fill vacant staffing positions, which have increased since Michael.

“There’s no way we’re going to rebound from this thing by the Census," Yeager said.

Reamer, from George Washington University, emphasized that federal funding and even possibly political representation lost in the Panhandle will go elsewhere. Every displaced resident ended up in some city, or state, where they will be counted instead.

“Other states,” he said, "benefit from Florida’s misery.”