Folks in rural part of Panhandle ask: Where’s the help?
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — More than two weeks after the powerful eyewall of Hurricane Michael passed over Bay County, Mark Ward wonders when the power will work again. And the sewer. And the water.
“We’ve been living out of coolers. We’ve been grilling out.” He points to a red cooler and two grills in front of his mobile home. He has to shout to be heard over the buzz of a generator.
Although electric, water and sewer service were restored to Panama City residents on Wednesday, those like Ward who live in the rural parts of Bay County still lack basic services.
“It’s a struggle. You feel frustrated because our local government seems to care more about the tourism industry than the hard-working people,” says the 49-year-old. “You go off some of these dirt roads that are still unpaved, these houses are crushed. These people have no resources.”
County spokeswoman Valerie Sale says she understands why people in rural areas feel left behind.
“When you live that far away from a municipal area, there’s a feeling of isolation,” she said. “There’s no question it’s a challenge to reach those folks. Under normal circumstances it takes 45 minutes to an hour to get to some of those northern parts of the county.”
Bay County is known for its sugar-sand beaches. Panama City Beach, which made it through relatively unscathed from the storm, is a mecca for spring breakers each year. Mexico Beach, another stunning community on the Gulf of Mexico, was almost obliterated by the storm. Stark, stunning visuals of the destruction there have been a staple of post-hurricane news coverage.
But the rural folks in Bay County say they feel invisible. About 180,000 people live in the county, and according to the Census, 14 percent of them live in poverty.
“Where’s the help?” asks Ward.
He’s one of the lucky ones in the Bayou George neighborhood. He has insurance. His mobile home was mostly spared. He has a generator, and he rigged a hand pump for the well.
His next-door neighbors didn’t fare as well: Michael stripped their mobile home to a wood skeleton. They clung to debris, but finally ran for safety to Ward’s home during the eye of the storm with a cat and her newborn kittens.
“I’ve got seven people in my house right now. Three bedrooms, two baths,” said Ward. “They’ve been with me since the storm.”
For the first week, he drove across the state line into Alabama for gas to run the generator. Gas has been easier to get locally in recent days, but lines are still long, he said. Because one of the people staying with him has diabetes, her insulin must remain cold, which is why they need to run the generator so much.
Ward’s property beside the road is a tangle of oak trees, twisted metal and downed power lines. Without flinching, he steps over and under the wires as if they were rope.
“Just tuck up under here,” he says, ducking under a thick power line.
Sale, the county spokeswoman, says the Red Cross has roving emergency response vehicles, and a fire station in nearby Bayou George is a distribution point where groups have been dropping household items, food and tarps.
Ward says the neighbors have been relying more on each other.
He checks in frequently with a group of twenty-something men and women who live across the street in a mobile home on a few acres.
“You’re good on your MRE’s?” he asked them on a recent day. “If you want water, you know where my pump is. There’s also a bathing station there. Bring a washrag. There’s bars of soap.”
“Yeah, I’ll probably use that, but my dad’s got a running creek he said we could go use,” said Ronald Lauricella, who owns the mobile home on the property.
Their yard is a mishmash of downed limbs, piled-up garbage and two tents. Two dogs and a small kitten roam the property.
Lauricella is staying in one tent and keeping food in another.
The inside of his mobile home is another explosion of chaos. The front door and his bedroom window were blown out from the hurricane’s winds. Water soaked the carpets and drywall.
“There’s bugs everywhere,” he said. “It smells. You can smell the mold growing.”
Lauricella, 19, has no property insurance. He’s in between jobs, and hopes to make it to an interview at a restaurant this week if he can scrape up enough money for gas. He figures it’s his only hope to recover from the storm.
“No one’s really sending help our way,” Lauricella said.