Hurricane War Zone Further Immiserates Florida Panhandle, Panama City

Photo Source NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC BY 2.0

Last Wednesday, parts of Florida’s Panhandle and the greater Southeast were demolished by Hurricane Michael’s almost category 5 winds and record storm surges reaching 14 feet. So far there are 35 confirmed deaths, but people are bracing for the worst. Fingers are crossed that more missing people will be located as communication improves. All weekend, search parties and emergency response services searched for survivors while utilities workers tried to get power restored. Hundreds of thousands remain without power.

President Trump has made his first dutiful appearance as well. On Monday, October 15, 2018, Trump and Melania took an aerial tour of the area, visited with Macon, Georgia farmers about crop and livestock devastation, and walked through streets in Bay County’s smaller town of Lynn Haven, just down Highway 77 from Panama City. Why did Trump skip larger Panama City? It’s larger and more diverse, although more white and middle class Lynn Haven’s total devastation is also a sight to see.

At least Trump has learned that handing people bottled water is a better official government response than tossing paper towels at people– like he did in Puerto Rico.

He’ll need more than a paper towel toss to fix this one. Hurricane Michael moved from Florida northeast through Georgia, where 84 chicken house holding more than 2 million chickens have been destroyed along with “pecan, cotton, vegetable and peanut crops” to the tune of almost 2 billion. Gulf of Mexico energy operations, like crude oil production, were cut by more than 40% and “natural gas output by nearly a third as offshore platforms were evacuated.” Then the storm moved onward to the already decimated Carolinas– causing more flooding of waterways containing leaked coal ash and hog waste.

By Friday, October 19, it was estimated that “Hurricane Michael has damaged an estimated $3 billion of timber across nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of forestland in the state’s Panhandle.” This is a huge loss.

Welcome to the War Zone

I lived and worked for the past nine years in Panama City, Lynn Haven, and Springfield– relocating to Alaska months ahead of Hurricane Michael. I asked a Panama City friend to send me his impressions. Ike is 39 years old and a veteran, which places him in a unique position to evaluate an area Florida’s Governor compares to “a war zone.” Ike describes his neighborhood of St. Andrew’s, not far from the bay, as of Thursday, October 12, 2018:

“Debris is everywhere. Downed power lines and poles fill the streets. Broken trees block roads, avenues and major highways in the city and surrounding areas. I drove around town yesterday in tears from all of the destruction. Businesses, churches, banks all have moderate to severe damage. Panama City is unrecognizable and I lived here all my life. People are walking around lost, they really don’t know what to do, or where to start repairing their town. My neighbors gather together and tell the own stories of where they were and how they lived thru Michael’s path of destruction. Our current situation is just survival. No power, no running water, no help at this time…Yesterday we bought a chainsaw to cut the down the trees in our yards, today we purchase a generator for temporary power…This is our lives right now. I’m considering relocating in a few days. Only time will tell.”

Isaac Kenneth Holmes, III, Panama City native, veteran, 39 years old. October 12, 2018.

Florida Panhandle residents can not take their quaint Gulfside neighborhoods and white sanded beaches for granted. They have to face a dirty energy dystopia head on. Talk about dystopian. Mexico Beach is currently under water, home after home blown to smithereens in a post-apocalyptic scenario that has been declared Hurricane Michael’s ground zero. The already toxic blooms of the red tide are now mixing with hurricane waters in unpredictable ways, causing new water and air quality and public health problems. Gulf oil refineries and platforms are toxic sites already under scrutiny for cleanup, overhaul, abolition. Now this?

Ghosts of Katrina and Maria haunt emergency response services as another disaster overpowers a region already socially taxed with rising high school dropout rates and housing costs, an aging population, unemployment, drug addiction, poor healthcare, chronic poverty, hunger, and chronic homelessness.

Adversity is not new for Panhandle residents. Some in the Deep South, like nearby Jackson, Mississippi, have been talking “recovery” long before the arrival of Hurricane Michael. There’s already a “roll up your sleeves and get busy” ethos that pervades hardscrabble Panhandle living. Residents can already imagine how recovery from this tragedy is possible, because they’ve been surviving through tragic workplace conditions anyway. Now many of these stressful low wage jobs are gone.

One of the area’s largest employers, the U.S. military, was hit hard enough by Michael to leave people wondering about its future. Near-totaled Mexico Beach is next to  Tyndall Air Force Base, where millions of dollars’ worth of aircraft and other structures were destroyed. The base houses the Pentagon’s most serious fighter jets, the F-22 Raptors, which are rumored to have sustained serious damages. The only silver lining on the Michael cloud is that those fighter jets won’t be used to produce the same kind of war zone rubble elsewhere that is now the Panhandle’s new normal.

It looked like a war zone when the National Guard rolled in to protect Panama City’s Sam Club when it is reopened after the hurricane. Elderly and sick residents are stranded without food and water in Panama City and nearby towns; organized aid was slowly rolled out beginning Friday, October 12. We hear it’s not enough and that people are growing more desperate.

Recently, Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Florida, while Puerto Rico has had to bear the brunt of Maria the hardest under a criminally negligent federal response. The schools in Bay County received Puerto Rican students who left after Maria, and at least one of these schools near the central library and downtown, Jinks Middle School, has been totaled. All Bay County schools report damage, and officials acknowledge the importance of getting its 26,000 students back into classrooms while working with families who are displaced, possibly long term.

While Florida school boards’ continue to debate the merits of climate science, on the ground, people are suffering from a dirty energy economy. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, job and revenue loss was felt as far away as Bay County. Bay County has other proof of its clean energy aspirations. In 2016, the Bay County Commission voted to ban fracking, placing the County in direct opposition with the state on the issue. At least the Commission had the sense to do this, paving the path for a sustainable energy economy.

Before Michael, Florida Panhandle communities already needed a dose of new economic energy. Unemployment is high in a seasonally-driven, hospitality-industry dominated, service sector economy dependent on military and Wal-Mart paychecks. Public school budgets and low test scores struggle under top-heavy pro-charter statewide policies (like HB 7069). Housing and cost of living prices have skyrocketed in the past decade alone, leaving many families dependent on food banks when monthly SNAP funds have run out. All this while hourly wages remain stagnant at the state minimum: $8.05.

Florida’s right to work policies keep the Panhandle immiserated, plain and simple.

Panama City: Another Case Study

Panama City is a prime case study of a race-class income and housing stratified city now impacted by climate change at the deepest level. This conflict continues as supposed looters are being arrested and jailed in Bay County jail that has been partially condemned and is always overcrowded.

Panama City proper has a population of 37,000, while surrounding Bay County has as many as 183,000 residents. In 2016, Panama City’s average median household income for white families was just under $50,000 (national median income is averaged at around $55,000). Here’s where structural racism hits hard. The average Black median household income for the same year is just over $25,000.

The class divide is heavily racialized in a state embattled over jobs, education, and, you guessed it, climate change preparedness.

When it was revealed that members of Governor Rick Scott’s staff were forbidden to use the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” etc.– people following Scott’s track record weren’t surprised. Just before Hurricane Michael touched down, critics were slamming Scott’s environmental record.

Before Michael hit, and after Panama City’s pro-business class Mayor Greg Brudnicki was elected, there were city-wide debates circulating about improving Panama City’s opportunities. Some proposals, like building a new non-working lighthouse to attract tourists, were mildly comical. Now building affordable housing should be a priority, as well as creating cleanup and long term sustainable energy jobs. This is no laughing matter.

After years of going back and forth on the marina and downtown plans, a few weeks back, a town hall style meeting held for area residents discussed many proposals and brewing projects. Residents acknowledged various development options on the table, and some called for “a strategic vision for the future of the city.”

A lot has changed in the past few weeks. Now, it’s reported the marina is in shambles: “Boat owners, workers and residents who came to salvage what they could on Thursday found dirty water swirled with cracked wood planks, snapped masts and scattered, shredded life jackets. There was a strong smell of marine fuel in the air.”

That same democratic, town hall style residential involvement will be essential moving forward. In fact, these development debates have provided ample training to Panama City residents to involve themselves in planning the city’s future. It’s just that priorities have changed. Now, a brighter future requires a massive clean-up and new disaster preparedness infrastructure projects. And how about reinvesting in public schools again?

Downtown Panama City, the very area residents have been diligently debating for years, now has wrecked storefronts, torn roofs, downed trees, broken windows and standing water…

Add to Michael’s aftermath the ongoing race-class war conditions, a misogynist old-boys’ network, and backwards environmental policies that have placed much of the areas land, over one million acres, in the ownership of one company–the St. Joe Company. St. Joe was making a bid for Panama City’s downtown marina development when Michael hit. A new streetscape plan in keeping with the character, parallel parking, a rotunda– all of this construction might have started later in the winter.

Panama City and the surrounding Panhandle stands at a crossroads. The choice is simple: become another disaster capitalism casualty or innovate an ecologically sustainable and socially supportive community response. The area has great potential, still, and longtime residents know this best.

It’s doubtful new downtown parking and a rotunda will be deemed more important than immediate emergency-measures and recovery in the short-term and funding sustainable and affordable housing, while creating jobs and disaster preparedness infrastructure projects, for the longer term.

There are growing worries that this destruction will “make it easier for the city to build a controversial project…”

Residents will remain vocal on their shared future, and they won’t be afraid to use the words “climate change” either.



Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. can be reached at