2 years after Michael, Florida Panhandle recovery goes on

“Two years ago, I didn’t think it could get any worse, but it did. This year has been very hard to navigate,” said Ladona Kelley, a student-family liaison with the school district in Calhoun County, one of the areas hit hardest by Michael.

Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the county seat of Blountstown on Friday — the eve of Michael making landfall two years ago — to announce $10 million in funding to continue repairs on the community hospital, which was badly damaged by the storm.

Earlier in the day in nearby Panama City, first lady Casey DeSantis announced an additional $5.2 million in grants to benefit children, partly to help them recover from the emotional upheaval in the frightening days of the storm as well as the months of disruptions caused by both the pandemic. Recent storms have added to the unease, including last month’s Hurricane Sally and, now, Hurricane Delta which is menacing the Louisiana coast.

The money announced Friday was just a fraction of the more than $830 million in state and federal funding that has benefitted the Panhandle since Michael plowed into the region on Oct. 10, 2018, killing dozens.

“We understand the toll that it takes on a lot of people, and emotionally, too, even two years after,” the first lady said with the governor at her side.

Last year, the first lady helped place mental health kiosks in 63 public schools across the six counties devastated by Hurricane Michael, potentially helping more than 35,000 children and their families. And the state added a mental health coordinator as a component in its disaster recovery efforts.

In addition to expanding mental health services, the new funding will be used to build playgrounds and rebuild preschools still awaiting help.

Michael was among the strongest hurricanes ever to make landfall in the U.S., hurling into the Panhandle with 160 mph (257 kph) winds. Hurricane Michael damaged an estimated 60,000 homes. It left 22,000 of Bay County’s then-180,000 residents homeless and resulted in total insured losses of almost $7 billion.

The devastation not only toppled homes and trees, it also upended lives, said Mike Watkins, the chief executive officer for Big Bend Community Based Care, which helps children and families with mental health and other services.

For many children, the electronic portals at their schools were lifelines in the aftermath of the storm, Watkins said, adding that the ongoing pandemic has only complicated the region’s recovery.

“These two events have run into each other. We were not in any way back to normal before the COVID restrictions. That change in routine, the lack of work and going back to the physical school exacerbates that experience for that kid, for that mom,” said Watkins.

The governor has cited the pandemic’s psychological and emotional toll on children in arguing to reopen schools — despite concerns by teachers and some parents that DeSantis is not taking the public health risks seriously enough.

During his visit to Blountstown, the governor again pushed back against his critics.

“This is going to be absolutely catastrophic,” DeSantis said. “We know young kids in particular, because we saw it in this region if they’re school got destroyed and they were displaced with their families, that’s a very, very challenging experience.”

The Florida Education Association has challenged the governor in his school reopening plan, which requires schools across the state to offer in-person instruction.

On Friday, the association, which represents teachers and other school employees, lost the latest round in court when a state appellate court overturned a Leon County judge, who had ruled the governor’s reopening plan unconstitutional.

FEA President Andrew Spar said it would appeal, even though most campuses have since reopened.

“This case was never about forcing schools to close. It was about safe schools and local control,” Spar said.

The association welcomed the focus on expanding mental health programs for children.

“The Florida Education Association has long called on the governor and lawmakers to fully invest in mental health professionals for our public school students,” Spar said. “Florida’s public schools have never been able to restore the cuts to school counselors, school psychologists and school social workers that were made during the Great Recession.”