Spotlight Exclusives

Florida Schools Still ‘Begging for Help’ after Hurricane Michael

Karyn Wofford Karyn Wofford, posted on

As a new hurricane season begins, thousands of students remain homeless and officials are struggling to rebuild before the next school year.

A bus depot in Bay County, Florida that was destroyed by Hurricane Michael.
Credit: Carmen Pinkard, Bay District Schools

School is out for the summer in Bay County, Florida, but there’s no vacation in store for Bill Husfelt. Since Hurricane Michael hit last October, Husfelt’s job has changed from superintendent of Florida’s Bay County District Schools to what seems more like “disaster relief coordinator.” And he’ll have no summer break in his efforts to try to bring his school district back to something at least close to normalcy.

For months, he has spent his days lobbying Congress to get more funding for storm recovery, creating preparedness plans for future disasters, and meeting with staff to figure out how to rebuild schools damaged by the storm.

“I have never experienced anything like this before and I hope to not have to ever face this level of devastation again,” he said. “Essentially, our entire community is a debris field.”

Disaster relief funding for Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida Panhandle last October, was stalled for eight months in Washington D.C. But schools couldn’t just stay closed. All 43 schools in Bay County were damaged — two may be torn down — so students took classes all year in doubled-up classrooms and trailers. Teachers fundraised to buy school supplies. One high school held its prom in a park.

The storm caused $6 billion in damages across Florida. Bay County — which includes Mexico Beach and Panama City — was the hardest-hit, and its schools suffered more than $250 million in damage. Since the storm, school enrollment in the county has plummeted 15 percent. Out of 27,000 students, nearly 3,700 students left the system, mostly because families moved away to find housing. More than 4,800 students still attending school were considered homeless as of May, and the school system lost over 200 employees. Eight months after the storm, families still are living in tents, on friends’ couches, in cars.

Despite the crisis county officials, teachers, and parents say they’re facing, federal funding has been barely trickling in, leaving communities and school districts to slowly rebuild on their own.

“I am grateful that I have a talented team and wonderful leaders in our schools, because I feel like I am not being the best ‘educational’ leader they need me to be,” Husfelt said. “Almost all of my focus and energy is about rebuilding and surviving from a four-hour period in our history.”

Nestled in the northwest corner of Florida along the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Bay County is a hub for tourism, which contributes $2.7 billion annually to the economy. It is home to Tyndall Air Force base, which was heavily damaged by the storm. A destination for beachgoers and retirees, the county is predominantly white and middle class, but there are many small, rural, low-income communities in the region that rely on the agriculture and timber industries.

Bay County has endured many hurricanes, but Hurricane Michael caused a new level of devastation. Not only was Michael the strongest storm to ever make landfall on the Florida Panhandle, officials had less time to prepare because it rapidly formed closer to the state. The total damage costs of the storm were less than other recent storms like Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, but $661 million in damages hit Bay County hard, making it much more expensive per capita than Irma, according to county officials.

Mexico Beach, a popular tourist destination, was all but wiped off the map. More than 750 small businesses have received disaster repair loans. Nearly three quarters of homes were affected. About 17 million cubic yards of debris blanketed the county. Two major hospitals were critically damaged, and one is still undergoing a major rebuild while having to lay off 800 employees.

Springfield Elementary in Bay County, Florida was completely destroyed by Hurricane Michael last year. Credit: Carmen Pinkard, Bay District Schools

Every school in Bay County was damaged by the violent winds and pelting rain, and will have to undergo roof repairs of some kind, said Doug Lee, executive director of operational support services for Bay District Schools. Since school started back up in November 2018, elementary, middle and high schools have combined to share buildings and supplies. Some have gotten new roofing or other repairs, but many are exposed to the elements or are caving in.

“The school system has been beaten up badly,” said Garth Sinclair, a father of three Bay County students who attend schools that have brought on new students from other locations. “It’s a multi-layer problem. Several schools were damaged severely, but it’s deeper than that.”

Homelessness among students rose for months after the storm, largely because of the lack of available housing, increasing rents, and few FEMA trailers. As of May, 4,800 were still considered homeless, officials said. Many people are living in homes “unfit for habitation” that need mold mitigation or new roofs, said Jo Shaffer, site administrator for the Community Recovery Center, a new organization for local disaster recovery support.

Bay County had a poverty rate of nearly 15%, data from 2017 shows. Residents and experts say the storm has exacerbated that poverty, shedding light on the lack of resources available for poor, rural communities along the coast — particularly housing for those who were renting or in mobile homes that were destroyed. Many say rent prices have risen since the hurricane hit, which has worsened the housing crisis. Florida regulators plan to build subsidized housing in affected counties.

“There are many others who aren’t so fortunate and they are living in their vehicles, or camping,” Shaffer said. “With the heat of the summer and the threat of hurricane season upon us, people are worried.”

Some students’ productivity and mental health have suffered because of these conditions, worrying teachers and parents and putting them on high alert for mental health counseling and psychiatric referrals. Teachers said that during the school year, students were scared when bad weather passed through, asking if they needed to hide in the bathroom, if the water would still work after the thunder passes, or if there would still be a roof on the building by the end of the day.

The sharp drop in student enrollment means a drastic decrease in funding for the school district. Lawmakers filed a bill in the Florida legislature to help fund schools districts to make up for lost revenue — Bay County wants about $12 million — but it’s still stuck in limbo in an education subcommittee. Without the money, Bay County school officials say they will have to lay off hundreds of workers.

Husfelt — along with Florida lawmakers and local officials — fought for months to get federal funding through a $19 billion disaster relief bill. Republican legislators from Kentucky, Texas, and Tennessee blocked the bill in recent weeks before it was passed in early June.

The lag in funding sets this storm apart from other major hurricanes. Congress passed a supplemental disaster relief funding bill 17 days after Hurricane Ike and 74 days after Hurricane Sandy. It took 236 days for the government to approve a bill after Hurricane Michael.

In early May, President Trump visited Panama City for a campaign rally and pledged $448 million from Housing and Urban Development to help Hurricane Michael recovery, which is separate from the supplemental disaster fund.

Florida state Sen. Bill Montford, who pushed for speedier federal funding, said it’s unclear whether the HUD money pledged by Trump will be enough to make a real difference in the area’s long-delayed rebuilding.

“This is partisan politics at its worst. Conscious decisions have been made to do nothing. It’s a disgrace we’ve had families living in tents for this long,” Montford said. “It’s unacceptable and intolerable and should never occur anywhere in the U.S. The federal government has not responded in the way that they should have, and they should be ashamed.”

In the meantime, communities are relying on Federal Emergency Management Authority funding to fill some of the gaps. A FEMA representative declined to answer questions, pointing to an April press release that stated the agency approved about $22 million to help the Bay County school system.

Many people say that’s not enough to even make a dent. Sharon Michalik, communications director for Bay District Schools, said that there are $250 million in uninsured losses and more than $350 million in total damages.

“We completely appreciate this $22 million payment but know that it hardly meets our needs,” she said. “We’re concerned that our parents and students will expect damaged buildings to be rehabilitated before the opening of the next school year and that simply won’t be possible due to a lack of funding and a dearth of qualified contractors.”

Stephanie Erbacher spends her days working with children who need behavioral assessments at a local elementary school that was damaged by the storm. Her family’s home was completely destroyed. She, her husband, and her son — who just graduated from high school — stayed in a room at a friend’s house with their two dogs, a dachshund and a terrier mix, for three months. During the year, Erbacher said goodbye to colleagues who were relocated to new schools or moved to find housing.

Most Bay County residents say they want to stay in the area despite the long road ahead and the threat of future hurricanes. “There are lots of reasons why people want to stay … whether it’s for their job, or to allow their children to remain in the school they know, or because their extended family is here,” said Shaffer. “[But] it has become increasingly difficult to remain.”

In lieu of government assistance, people have banded together to speed up recovery efforts and help students feel normal again. Some resorted to raising money to support neighbors via crowdfunding campaigns and social media, but it’s only a few hundreds or thousands of dollars at a time.

Teachers have donated furniture to each other; neighbors are helping rebuild homes and local businesses and bars; one restaurant has been using a food truck since the storm. Many schools supplied more students with free breakfast and lunch through the federal meal program and teachers and coaches spent more time one-on-one with students, even handing food and supplies out in their neighborhoods.

“On weekends when our kids have games or recitals, we have several teachers who go to their events,” Erbacher said. “We make sure that our kids know that they are loved.”

The school system, local government, and nonprofits are hosting a summer program that offers sports, classes, camps, and other recreational activities for kids since most parks and theaters haven’t been repaired yet.

“Bay County residents are strong and resilient, and while we still have a long way to go toward recovery, the strides we’ve made thus far are pretty remarkable,” said Bay County Commission Chairman Philip Griffitts.

Springfield Elementary in Bay County, Florida was completely destroyed by Hurricane Michael last year. Credit: Carmen Pinkard, Bay District Schools

Hurricane season officially began on June 1, and many teachers and school officials plan to use their summer off to prepare. Employees are undergoing trauma training to support students — a process that will be ongoing through the next school year, Michalik said.

“I don’t think we’ve ever worked so hard without feeling like we’re making significant progress,” she said. “The to-do list is endless.”

And with restoration from last year so far behind, patience is wearing thin.

“The challenges we have faced in just getting some of the simple requests we have funded are ridiculous,” Husfelt said. “In the midst of all of this damage, and the difficulties of just daily living in this environment, we should not have to be literally begging for help.

This story was published in partnership with Southerly, an independent media organization that covers ecology, justice, and culture in the American South. Karyn Wofford is a freelance writer based in Georgia. Follow her on Twitter.

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