PC-Singing the Blue Tarp Blues

Disaster Survival: What’s Needed and What’s Lacking

Blue Tarp and Blue Skies in Panama City, FL Photo Diane Nilan

Being hit by 150+ mph winds and pelting rain will knock you down — person or community. Hurricane Michael demonstrated his power back in October 2018 in a swath of Florida’s beleaguered Panhandle and into south Georgia’s poverty-stricken pecan land.

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Panama City and surrounding areas hit by Hurricane Michael. Apple Map

I’ve just ventured through this windswept area and as I look in my rearview mirrors I’ve got a few thoughts….

Hurricanes are common disasters, but not the only ones. Some of what I’m offering might apply to other disaster-stricken areas. Nothing I can say will convey either the sense of futility or hope in people I met. This is just a well-intentioned me, having spent a week in Panama City (aka PC), shining a light on what seems to be a forgotten crisis.

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Walls and roof ripped off as they huddled, the story of a family I interviewed and many others whose stories are untold. Photo Diane Nilan

#1 Debilitating Factor: Stress

Some spoke of the impact of stress but recently, on the eve of a storm that was predicted to pack powerful wind and copious rain, that stress was palpable. The families and women at the shelter where I was parked were almost immobilized. School was cancelled for the next day leaving parents to figure out arrangements and kids to be relieved that they could be with their families, despite the physical fragility of their housing. PTSD is real.

#1 Rehabilitating Factor: Stability

Leadership in a crisis is invaluable. From what I’ve heard and seen, hands-down, Bay County Superintendent of Schools Bill Husfelt gets a prize! His efforts to get a grip on the district’s ravaged situation and guide the “sinking ship” to safe port for repairs is admirable. He realizes that strong schools are the backbone of this community, and restoring what’s left so education can do its thing in PC is a major part of his job.

He writes a column for the local paper. This week he offered this bit of wisdom:

Despite all of those amazing statistics and harbingers of progress, our district and our entire community is still facing challenges. Poverty, a lack of housing and food instability are just a few of the obstacles being faced by our community and, therefore, by our schools. These issues existed before the storm but were exacerbated by the damage wrought by Hurricane Michael and the amount of time it has taken for Federal Disaster Aid to make its way to us.

And he then added an honest, alarming assessment coupled with a sign of hope:

More alarming, however, is the mental health crisis we are facing on almost every level. Adults are suffering just as much as their children are. Countywide, practitioners report seeing an increase in mental health referrals; school is just a microcosm of society, so we’re seeing it too.

Thanks to some state and federal funding, we’re finally going to be able to hire the additional social workers and licensed mental health clinicians that we’ve been begging for since November of 2018. We hope these additional staff members will make a significant impact on the lives of our children.

Ask yourself, why should they have to beg for additional social workers and mental health clinicians? And why should it take 14 months?

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Crushed. And still crushed after 15 months. Photo Diane Nilan

‘Elephant in the Room’

I attended a meeting with school personnel and disaster recovery leaders. My expectations were muted by decades of cynicism of working with homeless adults and kids. I was pleasantly surprised. They were all frustrated, but determined.

Leading the challenging recovery segment, Compass 82, a unique nonprofit that describes their mission:

Our comprehensive “Educate > Advocate > Navigate” system is designed to guide disaster survivors in the right direction by immediately establishing and implementing a recovery plan during the early days following a disaster and ensuring local, state, federal, and nonprofit service providers are accessible and maximized.

CEO Sue Marticek, a tough-talking New Jersey gal, skipped the bureaucratic BS and gave a no-nonsense appraisal of where things were and where they needed to go. She, and the school personnel gathered, agreed on one thing:


Without it, their best efforts are screwed. With it, and other key ingredients like health care, mental health services, and food access, PC will make it. Pushing this boulder up the steep mountain will require more than wishing it so. They know that, but it sounds like some community powerbrokers might still be resisting this reality.

The question must be loudly raised:

How can workers live in a community when they can’t afford housing?

One of the top priorities after a disaster is making sure that all displaced families have a safe, accessible, and affordable place to live while they get back on their feet. Too often, however, the housing, infrastructure, and mitigation needs of the lowest income people and their communities are overlooked.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition offers the above priority and a plethora of disaster recovery suggestions. Political will required.

A few disaster issues that don’t typically make the news were discussed.

  • Gouging. Lack of affordable housing was an issue before the storm, as it is in every community, but now, with the majority of housing and businesses damaged or destroyed, unleashing the American way of hiking prices. Rent for a 2BR apartment used to be in the $900 range. Now it’s $2,500.
  • Lost Workforce. Businesses are begging for workers. I saw Starbucks advertising a $17/hr wage. You have to hike your wages to make sure your workers can afford a place to live. Bus drivers, mental health workers and your barista need a place to call home.
  • Fewer Noses to Count. Community leaders see another devastating economic storm on the horizon — the upcoming census. With 25% of PC’s residents scattered hither-and-yon, fewer noses counted mean a drastic reduction in federal assistance for the next 10 years.
  • Escaping Homelessness Near Impossible. Those with the greatest housing needs are those who were homeless before Michael ripped through here. Bay County schools had an average of 700 students identified as homeless. Now they have over 3,000. (Read the latest on record numbers of homeless students nationally.)That’s just school kids, not including babies, toddlers, and parents, many of them working, or single adults without children. This area has a mere handful of time-limited temporary housing options. Most of the no-tell-motels that served as pseudo-shelters have been blown away. Ask yourself, how would you escape homelessness — on a good day? I can assure you most folks are not having many good days.
  • Food Access and Assistance Vital. Between the destroyed grocery stores and the compassion fatigue, those with little means to afford and access food are struggling. One woman joked about the abundance of garbanzo beans, with multiple cans of this nutritious vittle filling her cabinets. But hunger is real, and those with health issues requiring healthy diets have the least ability to eat healthy meals.
  • Bad Time to Slash Physical and Mental Health Care. Real bad, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the federal decision makers-and-breakers.

In the interest of not exceeding readers’ attention spans, take a look at Annie Lowery’s article in the Atlantic, The Great Affordability Crisis Breaking America. She manages to highlight not only housing, but health care, child care and college costs, pointing out, without including disaster-ravaged communities, “Along with the rise of inequality, the slowdown in productivity growth, and the shrinking of the middle class, the spiraling cost of living has become a central facet of American economic life.”

How do we say ISSUES?

I’m escaping PC with my mojo barely intact. I’m inspired by those pushing forward and those taking one step at a time, knowing I can’t wimp out on my HEAR US efforts to push for awareness and improvements for families and youth experiencing homelessness.

If I’ve accomplished nothing else, I hope I’ve afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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