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Dorian renews anxiety in Florida Panhandle, with Hurricane Michael’s wounds still fresh

Panic set in before the storm hit the Bahamas, followed by a familiar heartache.
Homes lay in ruins one week after Hurricane Dorian hit The Mudd neighborhood, in the Marsh Harbor area of Abaco, Bahamas. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano) [FERNANDO LLANO | AP]
Published Sep. 11
Updated Oct. 18

Hurricane Dorian was 1,000 miles away when the run on gas and water started in Port St. Joe.

The storm had not even reached the Bahamas yet, but many residents in Florida’s Forgotten Coast did not want to wait and see.

Hurricane Michael washed away more than just their beach houses and pine trees last year. It eroded a long-standing sense of security, or perhaps complacency, in the face of hurricanes.

All it took was for the notoriously uncertain five-day forecasts to put the Panhandle in the cone, with some tracks calling for Dorian to slice through Florida and over the northwest corner of the state.

“There was a panic,” said Deborah Mobley, project manager for Project H.O.P.E., a counseling organization that aims to help people cope with stress after disaster. “The anxiety is a symptom of the trauma.”

Eleven months since Category 5 Michael’s landfall, anguish is still fresh in the Panhandle. Counselors have seen depression and post-traumatic stress disorder seep into their communities as rebuilding slogs.

RELATED STORY: After the storm, ruins and rebuilding overshadow personal anguish

“Some people were feeling hopeless that they would never be able to come back to our area if they get another storm,” Mobley said. “And also some anger, because our houses aren’t fixed yet, our schools aren’t fixed yet, we still have people with insurance issues.”

Mexico Beach lay devastated after Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle last October. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times] [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

As Dorian took shape, Mobley’s staff of about 40 spread out over several counties. They traced Michael’s path — Panama City, Port St. Joe, Mexico Beach, Wewahitchka, Blountstown, Altha, Marianna, Sneads — knocking on doors and visiting schools in the hardest-hit spots to pass out hurricane preparedness plans. Being ready, she said, is a way of coping.

“We saw some adults who in front of children were pretty strongly saying they weren’t going to ride it out, that they weren’t okay,” she said. “We get this threat, and it hits you again. It just comes back to frightening you.”

Anxiety rattled even the staffers. Two who work in Port St. Joe already avoid driving through Mexico Beach, she said, because seeing the lingering damage is too hard.

“It’s like re-traumatizing yourself every day,” Mobley said.

Once the forecast changed, and meteorologists predicted Hurricane Dorian would skirt the east coast of Florida without ever approaching the Panhandle, people stayed alert.

Bill Kennedy, leader of the Port St. Joe Redevelopment Agency, saw residents on bicycles continuing to fill up gas cans.

Others reached out to friends on the far side of the state and urged them not to stay and risk the storm curving. They watched as Dorian, improbably, struck the Bahamas with Category 5 force — Michael all over again — and stalled for more than a day.

“We thought Michael was the gold standard of a bad storm,” Kennedy said. “Well, not so much.”

Hurricane Michael flooded the marina in Port St. Joe, destroying docks and sinking boats. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times] [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

RELATED STORY: Long scorned in the Bahamas, Haitians living there fear what comes next after Dorian

Survivors of Hurricane Michael looked at the pictures from places like Marsh Harbour and Freeport and saw familiar brokenness.

The footage was triggering, said Lori Allen, executive director of the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center.

“Anxiety, depression, crying, just remembering what it felt like,” she said. “You’re instantly flooded with memories, emotions and this history.”

Allen and her friends answered questions from their children, explaining that natural disasters are a part of life but people can try to stay safe.

“There’s more hurricanes?” she remembers her 6-year-old asking. “Why do we need to worry about another hurricane? We already had a hurricane.”

RELATED STORY: Hurricane Dorian devastates the Bahamas

At the Advocacy Center, she said, staffers thought about the tense weeks after Michael, when pallets of donated water sat untouched outside churches.

“What we really needed was tarps and roofers and contractors and tree cutters and money to pay for that,” Allen said. They sought ways to donate cash to survivors of Dorian.

“You used to say, ‘Well I feel sorry for them,’ but it’s a whole different feeling now,” said Bobby Pollock, a city council member in Mexico Beach. “It’s a deep-down, inside-your-heart feeling for them.”

Mexico Beach was cut off from neighboring cities one day after Hurricane Michael last October. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times] [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

RELATED STORY: Ron DeSantis says feds, not Florida, have role to play in Bahamian crisis.

Jodi Presutti, who remembers laying in her bathtub underneath a mattress in Callaway after Hurricane Michael ripped off her roof and smashed her front window, feels a flutter in her stomach when she sees pictures of the Bahamas.

Jodi Presutti outside a hotel where she stayed following Hurricane Michael. [JODI PRESUTTI | Jodi Presutti]

“Like I’m living it again with them,” she said. “I just wish I could be there to help. I know how hopeless and lost I felt.”

Presutti lost her rental home and job after Michael, and she has bounced between cities and states since, eventually landing in Spring Hill. The flutter comes back during summer storms, too. She used to go outside and enjoy the rumble, the picking up of heavy air, but now the bellow of the wind leaves her rattled.

Some in the Panhandle have tried to avoid Dorian’s reminders, wary of adding to their distress.

“I’ve seen some of the images, but I’ve purposely not gone and looked at a lot of it,” said Tricia Pearce, community relations specialist at Life Management Center, a behavioral health and family counseling organization in the Panhandle.

“There’s already so much of it in front of us now.”

RELATED STORY: Eight months after Hurricane Michael, many fear a mental health crisis

2019 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

What Michael taught the Panhandle and Tampa Bay

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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