How rural areas like Florida’s Panhandle can become more hurricane-ready

When Hurricane Michael roared onto northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast in October 2018, its 160 mile-per-hour winds made it the strongest storm ever to hit the region. It was only the fourth Category 5 storm on record to make landfall in the United States.

Thousands of residents, from the coast to 100 miles inland, were left without housing, power, food or water. Schools, stores, businesses and many government buildings shut down for weeks. Hospitals had to temporarily stop services.

Months later, many locals were still trying to survive in battered, tarp-covered homes or living in tents, relying on local food banks for survival. Lacking customers, some business owners shuttered their doors and left town.

In Michael’s aftermath, it gradually became apparent that Florida’s Panhandle experienced more severe damage than many urban areas around the state that are relatively better prepared for behemoth storms. I have seen firsthand how this was due to lack of preparedness and infrastructure that was aging, limited and substandard.

I have studied hurricane resilience for the past 13 years and know that better preparation can help make communities more resilient in the face of major disasters. As the high-risk months approach, I and other Florida State University scholars from many different fields are working with local communities to help them get ready and improve their response plans.

Hurricane Michael moves over Florida on Oct. 10, 2018. NASA EarthOobservatory

Lost homes and livelihoods

After Hurricane Michael passed through, I drove to Panama City – one of the hardest-hit areas – with fellow FAMU-FSU College of Engineering professors Juyeong Choi and Tarek Abichou. We made the trip to observe infrastructure and community damage and meet with local emergency management officials as part of a project supported by the federally funded Natural Hazards Center, which works to reduce harm from natural disasters.

To get there from Tallahassee, we drove west on State Road 20, an inland route that took us through ravaged rural areas. We returned along U.S. Highway 98, a scenic road that hugs the Gulf of Mexico, stopping at Mexico Beach – a small coastal tourist town that was nearly wiped away by Hurricane Michael’s winds and storm surge.

The damage we saw was beyond anything we had imagined. There were hundreds of thousands of downed trees and hundreds of blocked roadways. Numerous houses and farms were completely destroyed, along with extensive timber plantations – the region’s big money-producing crop.

[embedded content] Hurricane Michael caused widespread damage to trees and crops in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
FSU planner-in-residence Dennis Smith, who has worked for decades in emergency management in the public and private sectors, was just as stunned. “The damage, both the magnitude and the geographic extent and intensity, was some of the worst I had ever seen,” he told me. “There are extensive housing losses (far inland) and the damage to woodlands is like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

The social impacts were equally daunting. “We were especially not prepared for the numbers of homeless,” said Ellen Piekalkiewicz, who directs a center focusing on the needs of communities, families and children at FSU’s College of Social Work. In the schools, she said, “there have been a number of kids having psychological problems.”