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2 Weeks After Hurricane Michael, Homeowners On Florida's Panhandle Begin To Rebuild

A home damaged by Hurricane Michael in Gulf County, Fla. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)
A home damaged by Hurricane Michael in Gulf County, Fla. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

Much of the area between Mexico Beach and Port St. Joe looks like a hurricane went through yesterday — not two weeks ago. Major roads are clear, but cars and boats are strewn across lawns, homes are split wide open, and piles of debris line the streets.

But for those able to return to their homes, this part of the Florida Panhandle is one big construction site.

Troy Bryant and his wife Connie bought a beachfront property and moved to Port St. Joe from Georgia earlier this year. They stayed in a hotel in Marianna, Florida, during the storm and returned two days later to find their new home intact, but severely damaged. Workers had to tear the shingles off the roof that was put on last September.

“When I first drove up … the garage doors were mangled, but I thought, ‘Well, that’s not so bad,’ ” Troy says. “And then you walk outside to the back door of the garage and opened up, and this is what you’re seeing right here, just utter devastation.”

Troy says one of his neighbors’ houses is 40 feet from where it used to be.

A few blocks from the beach are Janice and Allen Cronan. They were on vacation in Tennessee when the storm hit, and returned to find 4 feet of water had swept through their home. The Cronans also saw whole houses lifted off their foundations and washed into the street by the storm surge and high winds.

“This second block most all the houses have some sort of damage, and of course, there’s was pushed so far it got kind of totaled,” Janice Cronan says. “When the storm surge came up, it starting floating, of course, and it just twirled it around, and it landed there. And of course, you see our neighbors’ car wound up in her house.”

The Cronans are now spending their retirement repairing their house themselves, living out of a camper in their backyard. They’re determined to stay, but Allen says this area will never be the same.

“There’s a large percentage of these homes that were owned by grandma, grandpa,” he says. “Grandma and grandpa not gonna rebuild down here. Grandma and grandpa’s gonna sell it.”

Many of the houses in the area were built before 1970, Allen says, which means they weren’t built to withstand hurricane winds and storm surge.

“They were literally not built to any hurricane code,” Allen says. “They were built for fishing cabins, and people have lived in them for years. Now they’re not gonna live in them anymore, and in five years, this won’t be the same place it was.”

Lifelong residents Clark Downs and his daughter Kimberly Downs Norton rode out the storm in Clark’s house.

“I was confident on a Category 1 and 2, but then after I realized it was gonna be a 3 or 4, it was too late,” Clark says. “And luckily we survived it.”

He says Michael was a historic storm.

“There’s a book called, ‘The Great Tide,’ where the city was destroyed three times,” Clark says. “Once by fire, once by yellow fever and once by a tidal wave, which it was really a hurricane. So I’m counting this as number four. But it’ll come back.”

Despite all the devastation, his daughter Kimberly found a silver lining.

“We can see more of the stars at night now,” she says. “It’s gonna take a lot of work to get it back together, but we’re ready.”

Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison shares that optimism. He and most of his staff slept in the sheriff’s office for more than a week after the storm, helping around the clock with rescue and recovery efforts.

“A lot of people have conversations about, ‘Where were you when 9/11 happened?’ Our previous generation was, ‘Where were you when JFK got shot?’ ” he says. “I think our generation here’s gonna say, ‘Where were you when Michael came through?’ “

Harrison says it will take time for the community to recover, but he hopes a hometown football game on Friday will bring people together.  

“The little things like that are gonna get our community back to where it needs to be, but it’s just gonna take time,” he says. “We’ve got a long ways to go, but we’re gonna get there.”

The people returning to Gulf County have a long road ahead, but Harrison says they’re the lucky ones — they have a home left to rebuild.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.