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Storm Season Brings New Dread While Forgotten Towns Rebuild

For some communities, the devastation remains an open wound, as in Florida’s Panama City, slammed by Hurricane Michael in October. It’s hard to imagine what another hurricane would do to parts of the Panhandle. / Reporting Freida Frisaro

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The annual start of hurricane season casts a shadow of dread over coastal sections of the United States. People fret over the next Big One, even as communities struggle to recover from the last one.

For some communities, the devastation remains an open wound, as in Florida’s Panama City, slammed by Hurricane Michael in October.

Even years later, many towns still bear the scars, physical or psychological.

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With hurricane season days away, Janelle Crosby steps out of the cramped recreational vehicle where she has lived since Hurricane Michael ripped apart her world more than seven months ago.

More than a half-dozen friends and relatives live in three domed tents near the front of the RV, and a daughter is just feet away in Crosby’s former home, an old trailer that was split open by trees. A homeless man lives in a tent on the other side of the RV; Crosby and her husband, Wilbur, let him stay on their little plot of property because he had nowhere else to go.

Crosby, 55, rode out the Category 5 storm at a hotel and feels fortunate, despite her living conditions and poor health — she has breast cancer — because no close friends or family died in Michael. Yet she is terrified that hurricane season begins Saturday with her Florida Panhandle community still in ruins.

“I’ve already lost everything once. We can’t do it again. I can’t. I’m not strong enough. A lot of these people aren’t,” Crosby said over the drone of a gasoline-powered generator.

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It’s hard to imagine what another hurricane would do to Crosby’s part of the Panhandle, where she lives near Panama City in Springfield.

In this combination of photos, a man sits in his car during the landfall of Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10, 2018, left, in Panama City, Fla., and the same location on May 2, 2019. (AP Photos)

Both cities are in Bay County, where 25 people were killed as Michael blew ashore with winds of 160 mph (257 kph). About 70% of the county’s homes were damaged or destroyed, and some 20,000 people were displaced. Three schools remain closed because of damage, as do many businesses and apartment buildings. Officials estimate 13% of the county’s 185,000 residents simply left.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided Crosby and her husband $1,300 in aid and offered a temporary condominium nearly 15 miles (24 kilometers) away in Panama City Beach, she said. The family declined the housing because her husband didn’t have transportation to get to his job at a transmission shop, Crosby said.

So the couple remains in the camper, shooing away the occasional rat and pooling resources with the tent dwellers.

“If one of us has generator gas, we all have a fan, or if we have propane, we all get to cook that night,” she said. “If not, we get out here and make fires and cook. We’re surviving.”

They’re also praying there’s not another hurricane anytime soon.

“I don’t want to live through another,” she said. “I don’t want to ever witness what we witnessed. It was just terrifying.”

Nearly 27 years after Hurricane Andrew cut a path of destruction south of Miami, Karon Grunwell is still overcome with sadness when she thinks about how the Category 5 storm forever changed her hometown.

In 1992, Homestead was a sleepy agricultural town bordered by the Everglades and large farms planted with winter tomatoes and other crops. It was also the site of Homestead Air Force Base. Now Homestead is full of sprawling gated developments where many residents commute 40 miles (60 kilometers) north to Miami with no memory of the monster storm.

Grunwell still lives in the sturdy concrete block home where she and her family rode out the storm in the early morning darkness of Aug. 12. Thousands of homes and businesses in the town of about 27,000 were leveled.

“The Air Force base was totally destroyed. Andrew caused a major impact to schools, grocery stores, retail businesses. And it caused huge economic problems for just your everyday people,” Grunwell said. “The vegetation has come back, but it’s not anything like it was.”

“I still cry when I talk about it,” she said.

Families who had lived in the area for generations got their insurance payouts and moved away. Many went to neighboring Broward County. Grunwell, who was a manager for the Postal Service, said there were 35,000 change-of-address forms processed for the towns of Homestead, nearby Florida City and Princeton.

This Aug. 25, 1992, file photo shows rows of damaged houses between Homestead and Florida City, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark Foley, File)

Jeff Blakley, 62, remembers watching the exodus while pulling 12-hour shifts as a BellSouth lineman, repairing telephone lines for the ravaged area.

“As I went home in the evenings, I remember seeing a solid line of cars heading north,” Blakley said. “It was bumper-to-bumper, and it was heartbreaking because you would see cars with everything they owned. Stuff was coming out the windows and mattresses were strapped to the roof. And they were just leaving because the devastation was so horrific.”

The Air Force base was downsized, its population going from 5,123 before Andrew to 466 in 2000. The storm stunted Homestead’s growth rate in the 1990s, but it surged in the early 2000s as land sold by departing farmers was transformed into housing developments. The town now has about 70,000 people.

But for hurricane survivors, “the stuff will not go away for quite some time,” Grunwell said. “You will keep remembering how things were.”

Storm Season Brings New Dread While Forgotten Towns Rebuild

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