As New Storm Passes, Florida Panhandle Residents Cope With Hurricane Michael Flashbacks
Jul. 11--PANAMA CITY -- The air in the heart of Florida's Panhandle has felt heavy for days, weighed down by Southern humidity and the hazy heat of summer. Familiar thunderstorms, bringing brief downpours, have done little to loosen its grip.
But Hurricane Michael survivor Octavia Pullum has felt more brewing in that air lately: It's fear, brought by a storm passing by in the Gulf of Mexico, which she still feels even though it is moving past the hurricane-scarred region.
Pullum, 34, has been living with her three children in a cluster of tents and makeshift wooden sheds on the edge of Bay County, hosted in a good Samaritan's backyard after her home in a Panama City suburb was damaged by Hurricane Michael in October.
The four of them stayed during Michael in a relative's home, where the roof ripped off mid-hurricane with an otherworldly sound Pullum still recalls vividly nine months later.
When she hears thunder now, Pullum won't touch the door. She lies down under the covers in her shed, waiting for it to pass. Sometimes, her children huddle with her to comfort her and themselves.
"Even if the wind blows a little bit, my heart's beating fast," she admitted. "I'm scared, all the time."
It is hurricane season again in the Panhandle, but most residents will tell you that in Bay County, it never really stopped being hurricane season. And as a soon-to-be-named Barry passes by the Panhandle's doorstep, just its specter is causing Michael flashbacks.
Many residents are still living in tents or ruined homes, waiting for contractors or government funds to help them rebuild. Some fear heavier rains attracting black mold, with roofs covered still by tarps that can leak even with a typical summer's afternoon thunderstorm. Others are wary about water damage from flooding, as the state and municipalities still work to clear debris, or about weakened trees from Michael that might topple in a lesser storm.
This is a familiar feeling to the Floridians who weathered Andrew and Charley, Ivan and Wilma, Matthew and Irma. It doesn't make it any less traumatic for those struggling to piece their homes and lives back together in the Panhandle.
A mid-season forecast from Colorado State University released Tuesday predicts a near-average season, with about six hurricanes, two of which could be major storms -- Categories 3, 4 or 5. But the Panhandle is still staggering to its feet after Michael and the place in some ways feels more fragile, said Sharon Michalik, the communications director for Bay District Schools.
"We're very vulnerable, and the community feels that," she said.
The new hurricane season, local authorities have warned, may also revive the mental toll exerted by Michael's slow recovery. Bay County's school officials have warned that the Panhandle's children are still coping with the trauma of last year's storm and much of the upheaval that followed. Across the rest of the Panhandle, leaders are issuing similar warnings.
The current disturbance that is heading toward coastal Louisiana on Saturday is expected to have a limited impact on the Panhandle, especially with the storm now in the Gulf and heading west. But the storm, projected to be a possible Category 1 or stronger hurricane, fueled squalls early in the week and could continue to indirectly feed thunderstorms in the Panhandle thanks to the circulation around the storm as it moves away from the state.
"It's enhancing the normal afternoon thunderstorm activities," said National Hurricane Center Senior Hurricane Specialist Stacy Stewart. "It doesn't take much to get a thunderstorm going, and those that do are just full of water."
In Jackson County, Emergency Management Director Rodney Andreasen said he is still living with relatives as he prepares to break ground on a new home later this month. He only recently got an insurance settlement for the home he lost in last year's storm.
"I just came out of a briefing on that, and we dodged a bullet," he said of the storm brewing in the Gulf. But he warned people needed to remain vigilant for future storms: "Don't take it for granted. Don't say it's not going to happen here."
Some people's fears of the new storm have been so great that they have moved into their vehicles or the woods for the week rather than live in tents, said Diahnn "Shelly" Summers, who opened up her home and backyard outside Panama City to dozens of people, including Pullum, since Michael hit.
Summers has 18 people living on her property -- in tents and sheds she and her husband have been providing -- but said they are waiting on nearly a dozen more people to join them next week.
Those new residents are waiting out the weather in other places, like a relative's home for a few days, she said. In the last several months, she has seen firsthand the toll hurricane recovery has taken:
"Their nerves are shot. They've lost everything. They're pretty much at their wit's end. They don't have a safe place to go."
People have also struggled, Summers said, with the expectation that with the storm so far behind them that recovery should be well underway. Some of the people she knows, she said, had homes and belongings that made it through Michael, only to be lost to subsequent flooding or leaks.
"They've made it through Michael only to lose it because of the rain," she said.
Pullum, who expects to stay with Summers until she and another friend on the property can buy a trailer together, has been posting regularly on social media and watching the news. In her shed, she keeps the television tuned to the local weather forecast. She knows the storm is in the Gulf of Mexico and headed west.
But she admits she has a paranoia about storms now that she had not felt before.
"I don't trust it," she said of the storm. "The way I look at it, [the Gulf] is facing towards us. I'm not going to relax until it's over."
Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this report from Miami.