Five years ago, a catastrophic hurricane made landfall in the Florida Panhandle. In this episode of the Deeper Dive podcast, host Dara Kam and her guests, Bay County Manager Robert Majka and State Rep. Philip Wayne “Griff” Griffitts, Jr. (R-Panama City Beach), reflect on lessons learned from 2018’s devastating Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm.
The trio unpacks the most significant challenges local leaders and residents faced in the storm’s aftermath. They also discuss changes that need to occur legislatively – on the state and federal levels –to support local communities after natural disasters.
- People in the Florida panhandle take storm warnings more seriously now than they did before Hurricane Michael.
- The systemic failures Hurricane Michael wrought prompted officials and everyday citizens to form closer community ties.
- Lessons learned from Hurricane Michael have helped officials prepare better for future disasters.They now coach others in crisis management, recovery and resilience.
- Policy changes are needed to help disaster recovery run more smoothly – particularly in small cities and rural areas.
People in the Florida panhandle take storm warnings more seriously now than they did before Hurricane Michael.
In 2018, Category Five Hurricane Michael made landfall in Bay County on Florida’s panhandle. County Manager Robert Majka and then-chairman of the Bay County Commission, Philip Wayne “Griff” Griffitts, Jr., were among the first to see the terrible extent of the devastation. Before Hurricane Michael, people in Bay County often didn’t take storm evacuation warnings seriously. Many remembered evacuating for Hurricane Opal, only to see the storm dissipate before making landfall. Thus, when Michael threatened, many decided to ride out the storm at home – to their eventual regret.
“When you have an event like this in your community, it erases all doubt about how powerful Mother Nature is.” (Robert Majka)
Panhandle residents now take evacuation warnings more seriously – and they tell the area’s many newcomers to do the same. Sometimes people think they’ll be fine as long as their home survives, but being stuck in your house after a natural disaster like a hurricane can be uncomfortable and unpleasant. Most people can’t handle being without electricity and running water for a week or more. And trying to evacuate after the fact is much harder than leaving before the storm hits.
The systemic failures Hurricane Michael wrought prompted officials and everyday citizens to form closer community ties.
As terrible as Michael was, local officials found it heartening to see that everyone in the community acted together to clean up and restore what they could. Local people helped clear roads and voluntarily carried out welfare checks on vulnerable neighbors, thus enabling fire crews and other emergency responders to focus on bigger problems.
A “random group of guys with chainsaws” – still unidentified – showed up to clear fallen trees from the access road to the hospital, so ambulances could evacuate patients. Neighbors who didn’t know one another before the storm took care of each other, including housing and feeding those whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the storm.
“You had people who lived in neighborhoods who didn’t know the person that they lived next to for maybe five or 10 years. All of a sudden, they’re inviting that person into their house because that neighbor’s roof’s gone. They’re feeding them. They’re socializing.” (Robert Majka)
Majka found that the experience of living through Hurricane Michael helped make Bay County more resilient in the face of COVID-19 a year later. After Michael, community leaders set up regular meetings to discuss vital issues. This positioned them to work together more effectively in deciding how to handle the pandemic.
Lessons learned from Hurricane Michael have helped officials prepare better for future disasters. They now coach others in crisis management, recovery and resilience.
Hurricane Michael took Bay County back to “the stone age” initially. Officials and emergency responders had no easy way to communicate, and no one had power or water.
“We had catastrophic failure of every first world convenience that we had. It was gone. We were in this stone age. Our first responders couldn’t talk unless they were in line of sight of each other.”
Nowadays, thanks to lessons learned from Michael and other storms, officials have emergency Starlink connections ready. Before the hurricane, Griffitts, who is now a member of the state’s House of Representatives, never thought about budget and borrowing-related issues on the massive scale that the storm demanded. He recently told officials in Maui who reached out for guidance after its wildfires that financing on this scale was just one of the many crisis-preparedness issues no one in Bay County had considered before Hurricane Michael. The cost of just removing all the debris – estimated at half a billion dollars – exceeded the county’s entire annual budget.
“You’re not in the mode of telling them what they need to do or how they need to do it. Just, these are the things that impacted us here. And oh, by the way, here are the 15 things we never thought we’d have to think of.” (Philip Wayne Griffitts, Jr.)
Due to Michael, officials in Bay County and other areas of Florida started important conversations with state officials about what the sources should be for money to pay for storm recovery. Michael also helped community leaders learn the ins and outs of navigating red tape related to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program. To prevent fraud, communities must rigorously account for every FEMA dollar they use – or deal with FEMA coming back later for reimbursement.
Policy changes are needed to help disaster recovery run more smoothly – particularly in small cities and rural areas.
Larger communities are far better equipped to recover quickly from the devastation of a natural disaster than smaller, more rural ones. For example, FEMA sometimes reimburses interest on borrowed funds and sometimes does not. Because interest that isn’t reimbursed can create a crushing debt for small communities, interest should always be reimbursable. Another big issue is that smaller communities often lack sufficient personnel to run a recovery effort. State-funded bridge loans can help, but immediate recovery is just the tip of the iceberg. The state and federal governments need better mechanisms to help small communities recover in the aftermath of a crisis and in the long run.
About the Podcast
Robert Majka is the manager of Bay County, Florida, and Philip Wayne “Griff” Griffitts, Jr., now a member of the Florida House of Representatives, chaired the Bay County Commission at the time of Hurricane Michael. Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida and host of the Deeper Dive podcast.