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Panama City, Fla., Struggles To Recover A Year After Hurricane


A year after Hurricane Michael slammed Florida's Panhandle, communities there struggle. Rebuilding is slow. With housing devastated, local governments are being forced to raise property tax rates to pay for high recovery costs. And a severe housing shortage has caused many to leave the area. From Panama City, Fla., NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: A year after the hurricane, when a local business reopens here, it's big news.


ALLEN: At the grand reopening of a Winn-Dixie supermarket last month, a high school marching band paraded through the store. Businesses have been slow to reopen since Hurricane Michael, in part because there aren't enough workers. The chairman of the Bay County Commission, Philip Griffitts, says it all stems from a shortage of affordable housing.

PHILIP GRIFFITTS: There was an article in today's paper regarding a new Dairy Queen that was going to have a grand opening, and they're having to push it back simply because they can't find the help to open a new Dairy Queen.


ALLEN: In Panama City and surrounding communities, crews are busy replacing roofs and working on new construction. But the demand for contractors, plus the electricians, plumbers and other building trades far outstrips what's available. Griffitts says friends who are contractors have more work than they can handle.

GRIFFITTS: One gentleman, for instance, he's a small-time custom homebuilder and commercial business builder. He might do five projects - six, seven projects a year. He's got 25 on the books. I have another friend who might do a hundred, 125 projects a year who, at one time, had 300 on the books.

ALLEN: When Michael roared through Panama City with winds over 150 miles per hour, it ravaged public housing and aging apartment complexes that made up much of the area's affordable housing stock. Thousands were left homeless. Many left the area. Some moved into trailers and manufactured homes provided by FEMA.


ALLEN: On the Bay County Fairgrounds, Tasha Crawford is pregnant and has been living in a FEMA mobile home since March with her boyfriend and five children.

TASHA CRAWFORD: We have this three-bedroom, two-bath, but it's really little (laughter) 'cause it's just a single wide. I'm very thankful for it, though. They put in some bunk beds in there for our boys.

ALLEN: Crawford says they can stay here until April, and maybe longer, if FEMA allows it. She and her boyfriend have been looking at rental properties, but she says they're expensive.

CRAWFORD: For us to get, like, a three-bedroom, it's going to be at least 1,800, 1,900 a month. Plus, you're going to have your water and your lights that you got to pay on top of it. And it's stressful right now.

ALLEN: The city manager in Panama City, Mark McQueen, agrees that affordable housing is the area's most acute need, but he says there are signs of progress. Work is underway on several privately owned apartment complexes that were damaged and shut down after the storm.

MARK MCQUEEN: Most of those were insured, so we're seeing that coming back online. And, in fact, between now and February of next year, of 2020, we're going to see about 85% of that housing stock back in inventory again.

ALLEN: While housing remains the major challenge, Hurricane Michael exposed another problem that needs attention in Panama City - its aging infrastructure.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Feces, dirty water and bacteria, enough raw sewage to fill over 4,000 bathtubs now in Watson Bayou.

ALLEN: Since August, a series of breaks and pump failures have dumped more than 65,000 gallons of sewage into waterways in Panama City. Trees uprooted in the storm and convoys of heavy debris-filled trucks have cracked decades-old sewer pipes. Officials say replacing the system will take 10 years and cost at least $200 million.

And at this point, officials in Panama City and other communities hit by the storm are struggling just to balance their budgets. In Panama City, Hurricane Michael destroyed or damaged 85% of the structures, McQueen says, substantially reducing their value on the tax rolls.

MCQUEEN: Just in the historic downtown area that we're in right now, the aggregate taxable values were reduced by over $18 million just in this little neighborhood that we're in right now.

ALLEN: To compensate for the decline in values, Panama City raised the property tax rate - an unpopular move, but one of several local communities to do so. McQueen said the tax rate should come down over the next few years as homes are rebuilt and property values rebound. He's more concerned about another consequence of the storm - the area's population loss. He believes 8,000 or 9,000 people, more than 25% of the city's residents, left the area. McQueen says that will hurt in April when the once-in-a-decade census is conducted.

MCQUEEN: That four-hour-named storm called Hurricane Michael could have a 10-year punitive effect to the recovery of the city of Panama City.

ALLEN: That's because the census is used to determine levels of state and federal grants, funding that will be vital as Panama City and other Panhandle communities rebuild.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Panama City, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.