Hurricane Michael debris hasn’t been cleared. Why that really matters now.

The damage left in its path may take a decade or more to address, state officials have estimated: about 500 million trees, or 72 million tons of forest debris across more than 2.8 million acres of land.
The remains of a gutted gas station remains on US Hwy 98 in Mexico Beach (3/2/19), five months after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the small Florida coastal community.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times The remains of a gutted gas station remains on US Hwy 98 in Mexico Beach (3/2/19), five months after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the small Florida coastal community. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published June 6, 2019|Updated Oct. 9, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- When Rodney Andreasen first emerged from the wreckage of Hurricane Michael last October, the Jackson County emergency management director realized nearly everything he knew was gone.

The log cabin home he had intended to retire to was lost. The roads in his inland, rural county were choked with fallen trees. The roofing from the county’s emergency management office had been partially shorn away.

State and federal officials descended upon the Panhandle, promising help. But eight months after Michael’s impact, Andreasen and other residents across Florida’s northwest are still digging out from the hurricane’s ruin. Millions of rural acres are still marked by swaths of toppled or twisted trees. Parts of the Panhandle remain dotted with piles of twisted metal and other detritus that have yet to be cleared.

As a long-awaited $19.1 billion disaster relief bill is finally poised to send more federal aid to Florida’s Panhandle, it’s unclear how much help will reach people on the ground, or when it will arrive. Even if this season is quiet for the storm-stricken Panhandle, as it has been in years past, it could take weeks or months for money to trickle down into awarded grants or government assistance — and the debris still remaining has posed new dangers.

The downed trees have fed stronger wildfires, debris has clogged waterways and changed floodplains, and materials washed offshore by the storm have snarled shrimpers’ and fishermen’s catches along the coast, to say nothing of ongoing fears of more mosquito-borne disease and invasive insects.

In March, more than 650 acres burned outside Panama City before firefighters extinguished the blaze. Low-lying Washington County was inundated with rain during a wet winter that raised the levels in major waterways by several feet. Eighty-five percent of the forest debris that has contributed to both problems — much of it on private land — has yet to be cleared, and much of it never will.

And in the meantime — storm-stricken Panhandle residents must worry about what once seemed an outside possibility — another storm that might hit a still struggling-to-rebuild community that fears it has been forgotten.

“I told someone the other day it’s unusual to be the director but also a survivor and a victim of the storm,” said Andreasen recently. He and his family are still living with relatives while they find somewhere new to live, and he received a settlement from his insurance company only last week. The county’s emergency management office is still undergoing repairs.

Andreasen’s job means he needs to prepare for an unthinkable second storm. But recovering from the last one, he noted, has never really ended.

Before last year’s hurricane season, the Panhandle had historically been spared from major storms. But Michael, retroactively upgraded to a Category 5 by forecasters, brought with it 155 mph winds that steamrolled through the state from the coast through the Georgia border.

The damage left in its path may take a decade or more to address, state officials have estimated: about 500 million trees, or 72 million tons of forest debris across more than 2.8 million acres of land. And though debris pickup after hurricanes has often plagued local and state governments, Hurricane Michael’s path through the heavily forested northwest has put the problem of storm trash on a different scale.

The downed timber adds up to a “massive continuous fuel bed” for potential wildfires, up to 10 or 20 times what littered forest floors about a year ago, said Jim Karels, the director of the Florida Forest Service. The dearth of taller trees to filter sunlight has also accelerated the growth of low-lying wax myrtles and palmettos — “more brush, which contributes to more fire threat” — and the abnormally dry spring weather has turned it into a kindling-dry powder keg.

Meanwhile, in lowlands across other parts of the northwest, the debris has exacerbated flooding from an unusually wet, rainy winter and, even if temporarily, changed the floodplain itself. The millions of now-missing pines also mean that the billions of gallons they used to absorb to grow have swelled riverbanks instead.

“It added insult to injury,” said Brett Cyphers, the executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District, which has advised the state Department of Environmental Protection on where to clear waterways to mitigate flooding that resulted after Michael swept through. “It’s already kind of pre-set for a problem” if another heavy storm comes through.

State and local officials have tried to mitigate the damage for the better part of a year. While Congress debated federal aid, the state Forest Service has started to carve 4,700 miles of fire-fighting paths that could mitigate future burns, while DEP has spent more than $30 million helping clear major waterways of downed logs and branches. Local emergency management officials, cash-strapped in their small communities, have taken out hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to haul away debris as they await reimbursements, though FEMA has granted some money for housing and limited debris removal.

But the forest agency has only completed about 10 percent of that preventative fire plan, having to work with private landowners to carve out fire lines and awaiting more FEMA money that would bolster private assistance.

“We’re doing it in between fire response, emergency management response for the hurricane, and doing it on budgets that no one’s giving us anything for,” Karels said. “We’re scrambling to take from Peter to pay Paul.”

According to the Forest Service, more than 230 communities are at an increased threat of fire, and the agency has deployed crews armed with chainsaws and tractors to move and cut some of the timber away rather than attempting to pick it up outright.

The state has also spent months clearing miles along Econfina Creek and the Chipola River to address flooding, but water levels in the Chipola River are still 1.5 to 2 feet above typical levels, Cyphers said.

The long-running federal drama over disaster funds has also pinched off money for local governments, many already fiscally constrained, to address what many called a once-in-a-lifetime storm. It can take years for some local governments to be fully reimbursed for storm recovery costs — on Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced another $78 million in reimbursement funding from FEMA and the state to Miami-Dade County to cover Irma-related debris expenses from 2017.

In Jackson County, many private landowners have struggled to pay to clear their land, stymied by access to the wreckage and without the financial means or assistance to haul it away.

For some, the timber “was their retirement investment. Now it’s gone,” said Andreasen, the emergency management director. “That’s not something you rebuild in five to six years.”

In Bay County, which bore the brunt of Michael’s impact, county officials borrowed $250 million to start to cover what they estimated would be about $390 million in debris removal costs — nearly 100 percent of the county’s total yearly operating budget — and far more than the $30 million they had in reserves before Michael hit.

Bob Majka, the county manager, said most of the debris along the county’s rights-of-way has been cleared, roads, driveways, piles of trash residents have hauled out to the curb after the storm. But county officials are still only about halfway done with debris clearing from the county’s stormwater systems and only beginning to talk to the state about how to address debris that was swept offshore, fouling fishing grounds.

The federal bill that finally passed Monday night includes vast expenditures for disasters that have hit every region of the country in the last several months, from the Southeast’s hurricanes to California’s wildfires to floods and tornadoes in the Midwest, and is one of the largest such disaster bills ever passed by Congress. The bill sets aside more than $1 billion for Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City alone, with billions more set aside for community grants and federal agencies expected to pass the money down to state and local governments.

But the aid will still take more time to reach people, Majka warned, tied up in administrative processes before those affected by the storm will start to see reimbursement requests or grants awarded to address their needs.

For residents who are still wondering how their communities will recover, any more help is already long overdue.

Recovery dollars have “flowed slower than Alaskan pond water” since the storm hit, said Randy Gordon of Callaway, a suburb of Panama City. Standing outside a shed he finally got to reopen his car repair business, he criticized federal officials for what he deemed too-little help. “They left us as fast as the storm did.”

77-year-old Joyce Casey, who lives a few houses away, survived the storm but the double-wide trailer she has called home for several years lost part of its roofing, the awnings, and several pieces of furniture. After a few months, she received a few hundred dollars from FEMA for temporary housing, she said, but used the money to make some repairs to the trailer she is loath to leave and to move some of the toppled trees from the woods that border her backyard.

Casey has had to decide what she can fix and what she hopes will not cause more problems down the road. Rain still pools inside the front screen door when when storms come through, and water stains have bloomed on the popcorn ceilings of her trailer, which she fears may lead to mold. A contractor who visited her trailer in the spring estimated it might cost several hundred dollars to fix the mold — money she says she doesn’t have.

“There’s still tons of crap that needs to be done,” said Casey, rattling off the dollar amounts she has already spent to get equipment for her son to move some of the trees that toppled, or to re-erect the power lines that edge her property. But she doesn’t expect any more federal money — and even if it arrived, she noted, “I don’t like asking for anything.”

There’s no way the repairs she identifies will happen before the storm season is finished, or perhaps even by the time the next one begins. Cyphers, the water management district director, said one of the enduring questions in the recovery will be the “human impact.”

“It’s a psychological impact, before they’ve really had time to recover from the last one, to deal with that again,” he said. “I worry about that, just from the standpoint of, ‘How do we get folks to recover?’"