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  1. Opinion

Why our reporting on Hurricane Michael is not over

From left, Tampa Bay Times photographer Douglas R. Clifford, reporters Kathryn Varn and Zachary T. Sampson along with photographer Monica Herndon pose for a photograph inside the newsroom in St. Petersburg. (CHRIS URSO | Times)
Published Dec. 27, 2018

This is me knocking on wood after Tampa Bay missed a direct hurricane hit for another year.

We all watched Michael tear apart the Panhandle in October and thought, "Phew. That could have been us."

Maybe you're thinking about those residents patching their lives back together with little attention or help. Or maybe you're not.

But we're there, helping you imagine what could happen here.

On tampabay.com, Times reporter Kathryn Varn and photographer Monica Herndon bring you the untenable reality of Panama City's housing crisis, one that discriminates against no one and promises to rage on.

We sent another team up there, too. Reporter Zachary T. Sampson and photographers Douglas R. Clifford and Brontë Wittpenn returned to Mexico Beach, the sleepy Gulf-front town where Michael made landfall. These journalists had a tremendous challenge, reporting in a place that isn't at all what it used to be.

Related: Mexico Beach lights a Christmas tree amid ruins

"We could open a satellite newsroom in the Panhandle and these places for a year and have 10 reporters and five photographers and three editors up there, and we would never run out of stories to report," Sampson said.

Varn echoes that, saying it was really hard to decide what to focus on. She and Herndon were in Panama City for five days earlier this month.

"We got a lot of thank you's for being there," Varn said.

That part of Florida is known as the Forgotten Coast, and really, the name is taking on a different meaning.

"They took so much pride in their remoteness before but now it's sort of a Catch 22," Sampson said, "because they're not getting the resources that maybe you would see if a Pinellas or a Tampa Bay got hit."

These five had a hard time separating their Panhandle reporting from thoughts of what could happen here.

"We live in a very vulnerable, geographically vulnerable, and very dense area that hasn't really been tested yet," Clifford said. "And I don't think this place will do well if it's tested, no matter how you slice it. You can't put a Teflon dome over Pinellas and Hillsborough and blink your eye and see that a storm has passed. We're going to take it one day on the nose."

Alarming words, but that's exactly why we've devoted the resources to tell these stories, not just when the storm hit, but now and in the coming months. It's one thing to be there when everything is in chaos. You kind of move by instinct and adrenaline. Now you wonder, are people tired of hearing about it?

"How many times can a person look at a neighborhood that's been reduced to splinters before it stops meaning anything to them?" Sampson asked. "Part of what we're trying to overcome here is to say, 'No, you've got to look at the neighborhood that's in splinters again because you need to know that it's there and you need to know that this could happen to you.' "

Herndon said she had to make a really conscious effort not to think about a Michael hitting Tampa Bay because it would have hurt her reporting efforts.

"I had to decide, 'Okay, I'm not going to compare,' " she said. "I'm not going to think about that destruction here because it's devastating."

She said it was really hard to do the kind of photography she's used to in longer-form stories.

"I feel like the best pictures are made when people are just hanging out, not being interviewed, but we didn't necessarily have the luxury of spending four hours with a family," she said. "I could tell when they were like, 'Mmmkay, are you going to leave now?' "

We'll keep telling these stories in the coming weeks and months, returning to the Panhandle to follow the people and watching for political fallout in Tallahassee as new leaders decide what changes need to be made so Florida is more prepared next time. Because we know there will be a next time.

"The first 24 hours I was back in St. Pete," Varn said, "it was just everywhere I looked. Well, that would be gone and that would be gone and my garage apartment would be gone. … You go from getting used to all the destruction and all the debris everywhere to just going back to a place that's fine. And it was really sobering."

It's the story we need to tell. It's the story you need to hear.

Contact Amy Hollyfield at ahollyfield@tampabay.com. Follow @amy_hollyfield.

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