Hurricane Michael Recovery Still Has A Long Way To Go Floridians are still reeling from the Category 5 storm's effects. They've been waiting more than 230 days for Congress to pass a disaster relief bill. And the new hurricane season is about to begin.
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Nearly 8 Months After Hurricane Michael, Florida Panhandle Feels Left Behind

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Nearly 8 Months After Hurricane Michael, Florida Panhandle Feels Left Behind

Nearly 8 Months After Hurricane Michael, Florida Panhandle Feels Left Behind

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The country is finally getting a break from severe weather today. Hundreds of tornadoes touched down earlier this week in states from Texas to New Jersey. And record flooding is expected to continue along the Arkansas River throughout the weekend. But there are many places still recovering from disasters like hurricanes that happened months ago.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Natural disasters don't distinguish between places that have money to rebuild and those that don't. A big city like Miami or Houston has tools to bounce back from a hurricane. You just don't find those resources in a place like Parker, Fla. Rich Musgrave is the mayor of this small town in the Florida Panhandle, population 4,500.

RICH MUSGRAVE: A hundred percent of our structures were damaged in one way or another.

SHAPIRO: Back in October, the eye wall of Hurricane Michael passed right over Parker. It was a Category 5 storm, one of the strongest recorded storms ever to hit the continental U.S.

MUSGRAVE: In the days and weeks directly following the storm, it was difficult to drive around because you lost all your landmarks. You'd pass by a street you used to turn on all the time and you find yourself, oh, I missed it. I have to turn and come back.

SHAPIRO: Now a new hurricane season starts tomorrow. So I visited the Panhandle to see how people are recovering. And one of the things that stood out was how much more difficult it is for small towns like Parker to rebuild.

MUSGRAVE: The level of change is just beyond comprehension.

SHAPIRO: Parker is only 2 square miles, right on the water near Panama City. It used to be known for its sprawling old shade trees. The storm knocked down around 80% of them. The way the system works is that FEMA pays for most of the cleanup costs after a natural disaster. Generally, local governments have to front the money and get reimbursed. Long-term federal money for housing and other reconstruction projects is supposed to come from Congress, but partisan fighting has delayed the disaster relief bill. Meanwhile, the cleanup in Parker cost more than the annual budget. And Mayor Rich Musgrave says FEMA still hasn't reimbursed the town. In the meantime, he hasn't paid the cleanup crews.

MUSGRAVE: They have been very gracious and kind and not asking for or demanding payment of certain invoices. So I'm just kind of holding back.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

MUSGRAVE: But at some point, the chicken's going to come home to roost.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying that because the federal government has not reimbursed your town, your town has not been able to pay the companies that did the hauling. And they've just been gracious enough not to knock down your door and say, we deserve to be paid.

MUSGRAVE: Ari, you're exactly right. So the question I have is, at some point, we're going to have to lay out enough cash, and do we have enough ready cash left to pay the bills? I mean, it's a valid question. And I don't know the answer to that yet.

SHAPIRO: Parker has to fill out the same paperwork as a much bigger city, but they don't have as much staff to do it all - filling out project worksheets and writing grant applications. Parker has a few dozen city workers total. That includes librarians and firefighters. Local businesses in Parker are fighting to get back to normal too.

JULIA AHMED: I think those should be ready.

SHAPIRO: When most buildings are damaged and there isn't money to repair them, it's tough for business owners to find a place they can reopen. No local business means the city doesn't get as much income from utilities and taxes, which makes it even harder for a place like Parker to get back on its feet.

AHMED: Well, right now, I have no competition as far as restaurants. There's no restaurants in town. I mean, there's nothing.

SHAPIRO: Julia Ahmed reopened her Pizzeria Napoli, in a new location just last month.

AHMED: We make our dough fresh every day. We make our own sauce. We use fresh ingredients.

SHAPIRO: The storm passed by in October.

AHMED: Yes.

SHAPIRO: The business reopened in April.

AHMED: Correct.

SHAPIRO: Did you ever imagine it would take that long?

AHMED: No. In fact, I kept posting on Facebook we'll be open at the end of January. We'll be at the end of February. And it just kept going on and on.

SHAPIRO: Here on the coast, there's tourism and an Air Force base that towns can lean on to help propel the economic recovery. Rural communities have even bigger challenges. So I drove 50 miles north from the coast.

Marianna is a small town of about 6,000 people about an hour's drive inland. A lot of people here work in farming, timber. When you walk down the main street, you can see buildings that are demolished and others that have had the facades partially ripped off.

CINDY SMITH: To see that building in the street, this one down - there's one in the next block that literally fell into the street. That shook everybody up because, you know, these buildings are over a hundred years old. To see that kind of power humbles you, humbles you greatly.

SHAPIRO: Cindy Smith owns a few businesses on Marianna's Main Street, including Smith and Smith jewelers, where I met her.

SMITH: This county is not big money. It's not a rich county, you know. So you're fighting left and right for the money to get the cleanup.

SHAPIRO: Marianna's annual budget is 5 or $6 million a year. But one of the biggest industries is timber, and many of the trees have been knocked down. One of the biggest employers is a federal prison that's been closed since October.

JIM DEAN: When they moved all those inmates out, we provide all their services - water, sewer and natural gas. Well, you're talking about a million dollars in revenue that just kind of went out the door.

SHAPIRO: Marianna City Manager Jim Dean has had to make some tough financial decisions. If everything in town is damaged and tax revenue isn't coming in like it used to, what do you fix first?

DEAN: You know, you're going to have to be very selective at what you do or you're going to put yourself so far in debt that you're going to be paying off debt from this storm before you even begin to provide a baseball field for your kids to play baseball on, before you buy a new police car, before you buy a fire truck. I mean...

SHAPIRO: Just because you were picking up trees.

DEAN: Just because you're picking up trees.

SHAPIRO: So you feel like the system was not designed for a place like Marianna.

DEAN: It's just a bigger challenge for us.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DEAN: And the programs become more complex. And it just - it becomes a daunting task to try and meet some of the requirements.

SHAPIRO: Next week, Congress is expected to finally pass a disaster relief bill, and President Trump says he'll sign it. But Jim Dean says the fact that it's taken more than 230 days only adds to his problems.

DEAN: That money could potentially have already been on the street. There could be projects underway. There could be projects that are in the design phase or being bid out right now. But we don't have applications because the money is just getting started. We don't have any design work done. And so we're sure not at a point where we can bid the project.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DEAN: So if we would have done this 200 days ago, we'd probably be in a lot better position but we're not.

SHAPIRO: That's Jim Dean, the city manager of Marianna, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: In another part of the program, we'll visit Tyndall Air Force Base just outside of Panama City. In a storm that caused $25 billion of damage almost, 5 billion was on this base alone.

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