Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Still rebuilding after Hurricane Michael, the Florida Panhandle responds to COVID-19

Mexico Beach, Florida, which was hit especially hard by Hurricane Michael in 2018. Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife

Officials in Bay County, Florida joined communities across the country in declaring a state of emergency this week as the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads rapidly. Unlike most places, though, they were already in one: The county’s emergency declaration from Hurricane Michael, which tore through the Panhandle with winds over 150 miles per hour in October 2018, is still in effect. 

Across northwest Florida, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to overload medical facilities, housing, and businesses that still haven’t recovered from the storm. As of Friday, there are no confirmed cases in Bay County (neighboring counties reportedly have a few confirmed cases), but medical service providers suspect that’s due to the lack of testing. They worry residents still struggling — particularly those who are homeless — are especially vulnerable.

“Most of our patients are either sharing housing, couch surfing, living in a tent or living in FEMA trailers, or in their cars,” said Vivian Mohamed, who runs the Avicenna Free Clinic in Panama City that provides care for uninsured patients. “That’s a big population that, due to their living conditions, are at high risk for the coronavirus.” 

Hurricane Michael damaged or destroyed about 60% of the county’s houses and apartments — leaving thousands homeless — and over 70% of businesses in an area that relies on tourism. Federal disaster money has trickled in slowly. According to Bay County commissioner Philip “Griff” Griffitts, one of the county’s two hospitals faces major challenges in accommodating people being tested for or diagnosed with COVID-19. Bay Medical Center was ravaged by the storm, and is only operating at a third of its former capacity, with just around 100 beds. Since the storm, it has continued to send patients to hospitals dozens of miles away in Destin and Fort Walton for treatment. 

Businesses are still rebuilding, as well, so the closure of bars and mandatory 50% reduction of restaurant capacity implemented this week will likely hurt the local economy. Some restaurant owners who were preparing for peak tourist season this spring and summer told Griffitts that if they lock their doors to customers, it’ll be for the last time. “Every time we get a new restaurant that has reopened after the storm, it’s a celebration,” he said. “And now this — just as we are turning the corner.”

So far during the pandemic, nonprofits, disaster relief groups, and the local government are communicating efficiently about their response, because they’ve had to since the hurricane, said Yvonne Petrasovits, executive director of Doorways of Northwest Florida, an organization that serves homeless people in six counties. “A lot of the relationships we have wouldn’t have been there without the storm,” she said. 

In 2018, when most residents were without power or cell phone service in the weeks after the hurricane, Bay County used banner planes to tell them where to seek assistance. The planes returned to the skies this week, carrying banners advising social distancing and hand-washing.

Doorways is one of several nonprofits that work out of the Bay County Community Resource Center, opened by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the storm and handed over to local nonprofits last April. Petrasovits says that the temporary closure of the resource center will impede their efforts to help anywhere from 15 to 40 people each day who need to access housing, jobs, and food. Many other nonprofits in the area focus on disaster recovery and will have to figure out how to effectively do outreach to the community during this time.

Officials worry about how the region will handle the response during hurricane season, which starts in June and could coincide with the peak of COVID-19 pandemic, according to some models. There are no easy answers yet, Griffitts said. “It makes me sick to my stomach to think about.”

Sophie Kasakove is a freelance reporter in New Orleans covering environment and housing. Follow her on Twitter.

Are you in an area in the South trying to address COVID-19 while also dealing with disaster relief efforts from flooding, storms, tornadoes, or other events? How is your community responding? Please contact us.