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After the storm, ruins and rebuilding overshadow personal anguish

Hurricane Michael survivors in the Florida Panhandle talk of stress or despair, which experts say can lead to anxiety and depression.
Charles Smith, 55, walks through the rubble of his Gulf View Motel, which was destroyed by Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Jan. 4
Updated Jan. 4

MEXICO BEACH — The trailer sits on a corner lot, with a view of the Gulf of Mexico, but Carl Lormand could only see the pile of ash that used to be his home.

He had watched the house burn during Hurricane Michael, helpless to stop the creeping flames as they swept over one neighbor’s property, then another. Lormand had ridden out the storm across the street, in a sturdy new house built by people out of town who had left him a key. Even there, the roof had blown off, water dripping through the floor above, and the 67-year-old wondered if he would die alone.

He stayed in Mexico Beach after the hurricane because his 12-year-old daughter wanted to go home, to the same school, the same street.

Lormand bought the trailer and parked it at the back of the lot. It is narrow and cramped. And Mexico Beach is stripped bare, the nights darker and quieter without neighbors.

His wife died from cancer a year before the storm, and Michael scorched everything they had collected together — photographs, keepsakes. A demolition contractor eventually covered the scar with 10 truckloads of sand.

Everyone here has a story like this, of loss they struggle to describe and recovery they cannot yet comprehend. Many have not pursued any kind of therapy, even as some people in Mexico Beach have begun to talk of “hurricane brain” — flashes of pain or panic or frustration.

"Everyone goes through these things differently,” Lormand said. “Not saying it would be a bad idea, but I haven’t done it.”

Residents of the Forgotten Coast instead loop a holding pattern around disaster, driving past rubble on every corner. The focus, for them and for many volunteers helping with recovery, is on the physical: food, clothing, buildings, trash, places to go to the bathroom. Lormand is hoping to find an architect to draw up plans for a smaller house, one he can build with the $200,000 insurance check.

But the hurricane caused emotional trauma, too, experts say, stress and despair that can lead to less visible devastation through depression and anxiety.

Mayor Al Cathey said it’s hard even to look around. “You pass the history of our city, and it’s just laying there in a pile or crumpled.”

Most everyone living in the gash left by the storm across the Florida Panhandle is facing the same emotions, said Lori Allen, executive director and CEO of the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center.

A friend’s 6-year-old daughter worried when she returned home that everyone was going to die — even though the storm had passed. Allen understood. “It does look like the end of the world.”

Progress is slow in Mexico Beach, which was nearly wiped out by Hurricane Michael. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

PREVIOUS COVERAGE

‘We don’t even have a Band-Aid on us yet.’ Mexico Beach residents worry they’ve already been forgotten.

‘We’re not going back to normal.’ They rode out Hurricane Michael, but were left without homes.

‘We can’t not do this:’ Mexico Beach lights a Christmas tree amid ruins

Ground zero: See the damage Hurricane Michael inflicted on Mexico Beach

Why our reporting on Hurricane Michael is not over

***

The impact on mental health after a hurricane is difficult to measure. Different symptoms emerge at different times.

Neither Lormand nor the many others who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times last month about devastation in Mexico Beach initially mentioned mental health, and they did not talk about seeking help from a doctor. But they described anguish, which trauma specialists say can cause disorders.

For those who rode out the October hurricane at home, enduring 150 mph winds and 15-foot storm surge, post-traumatic stress disorder can surface quickly, pricking them with flashbacks and night terrors. Those who evacuated but returned to destruction might be overcome with a sense of hopelessness.

The Red Cross made 6,800 mental health contacts across about 10 counties in the weeks after Hurricane Michael, said Sharon Tyler, director of its Capital Area Chapter. That’s a broad metric, marking conversations and referrals to other agencies, she said. A representative for the local branch of The Salvation Army said its workers had more than 43,000 “significant interactions” with hurricane survivors by mid-November, most ending in prayer.

A panel of still pictures lay outside a Mexico Beach property damaged by Hurricane Michael. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

The Florida Department of Children and Families teamed with local counseling centers to offer more formal treatment. But Allen said it is difficult to tally services, as some care providers lost buildings in the storm. Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, she said, lost its rape crisis facility and has offered help in RVs. The organization did not have consistent internet or phone service for weeks.

Allen said many people who sought help had gotten counseling before. For some, the disaster brought back old traumas. She wonders whether people who have never been in therapy know to consider it now.

Specialists said many people will recover on their own, after a few months, but symptoms of trauma can linger long-term.

There’s a great sense of loss, said Deborah Beidel, a University of Central Florida psychology professor and director of the UCF RESTORES treatment clinic.

“There’s nothing left to lean on, so people can lean on each other, but everyone’s going through the same event,” she said.

***

Connie Huff used to work in a restaurant in Mexico Beach that is now a food truck, the burgers and chicken wings replaced by a menu of whatever is available each day. Getting there requires passing her old neighborhood, where her apartment was destroyed.

Huff, 21, lost the box of mementos from high school that held her diploma and cheerleading uniform.

“I’ve cried it all out that I possibly could,” she said.

Karen Buddo, 68, carries a teacup Yorkie, a service dog she said helps with PTSD, the lingering effect of a bad relationship. The coping mechanisms she learned have helped after the hurricane.

Like many others, Buddo said, she spent weeks figuring out her insurance policy, finding a place to stay and food to eat, cobbling together first steps.

“You just have so much on your mind, so much you have to do,” she said. “You just get rattled.”

Karen Buddo, 68, of Mexico Beach, holds her teacup Yorkie while waiting for a hot meal two months after Hurricane Michael. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Some people, Buddo said, have flashes of anger but don’t know what triggers them. Others are simply crushed.

“People are talking like: ‘Well, I just think it’d be better if I was dead,’ ” she said.

Chuck McKibbon, who lives in a cabin in a campground a couple of miles from the shore in Mexico Beach, understands that level of desperation.

“This town only has two occupations: tourism and retirement,” he said. “That’s the only reason we’re here, and to lose everything, what are your thoughts laying on a pillow at night? Thinking before you go to sleep that I literally have nothing left?”

Mental health workers said they have heard of suicides or overdoses tied to the aftermath of the storm, but any evidence is anecdotal.

Whit Majors, director of operations at the regional medical examiner’s office, said it’s hard to connect a person killing himself to a single cause.

He suspects there have been some suicides, just like in a downturn of the economy.

Chuck McKibbon arrives at a supplies tent in Mexico Beach in early December. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

***

Two chaplains from New Mexico drove into Mexico Beach on a cloudy day in early December, paying their own way to see who needed help.

Kathy Thibodaux, from the Sandoval County Fire Department, and Mary Jaramillo, from the Albuquerque Police Department, said they spent much of their time in Panama City.

Amid the ruins, people were getting help informally, venting where they could, or not at all.

“They’re hopeless, they’re helpless, and they don’t see a way out,” Thibodaux said.

Some were drawn to faith after the disaster, the chaplains said. Others questioned it.

“I just tell them that I love them,” said the Rev. Eddie LaFountain of Mexico Beach’s First Baptist Church. His building became a warehouse for supplies after the storm, cases of water tottering outside under the sun, the detached steeple planted on the front lawn. “I tell them that Jesus loves them more than I do, and I tell them that he’s right there with us.”

When she volunteered at a donation center, Laurie June, 42, said residents opened up to her as if she were a counselor. She was becoming numb to the wreckage outside.

"One day I’m blinded by it and then the next day I don’t even see it,” June said. “I think that’s my own mind trying to keep me ... from breaking.”

Hurricane Michael ripped homes from the ground and tossed them across yards and streets in Mexico Beach. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

***

Specialists said living amid the destruction can exacerbate trauma. Progress is often slow and seeing so much damage every day makes moving on hard.

But many longtime residents of the Forgotten Coast have vowed not to leave.

“I didn’t run from the hurricane,” said Charles Smith, owner of the Gulf View Motel, “and I’m not going to run after it.”

He had spent months and $80,000 renovating the motel, where he lived and worked, before the storm. He went room by room, laying tile and running wires, and trained someone to handle the desk, so he could slip away.

Then the hurricane came. Smith, 55, stayed in the trembling motel, just across the street from the Gulf.

The saltwater rushed around him, knocking him off his feet, and his cat dug into his arm, terrified. At one point, as the water rose, Smith felt sure he would die.

When the hurricane relented, the motel was soaked through and in a suspended state of collapse.

Smith now lives in a trailer behind the sagging building.

“I’m too old to get a new job, and I’m too young to retire,” he said.

Smith walks over the tile he laid or underneath the picture window he bought last year and doesn’t feel so much pride anymore.

“I’m over it,” he said.

But this is still his home. He’ll take care of what he can. The warning he wrote when he thought he heard looters the night after the storm remains on the wall of his second-floor apartment in the motel: “I am here I will shoot you.”

Charles Smith, 55, remembers riding out Hurricane Michael in the Gulf View Motel, which was flooded by storm surge. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

NEED HELP?

Specialists recommend calling 2-1-1, which can help connect residents to local resources in a crisis. The Red Cross also has more information on emotional recovery here.

Times staff writers Douglas R. Clifford and Brontë Wittpenn and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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