Florida Panhandle still recovering from Cat 5 storm as hurricane season gets underway

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And it’s back. Hurricane season kicks off Saturday, something Florida and the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastal states heed each year with worry and hope that it won’t be another bad one like last year’s.

RELATED: Florida's tax-free holiday for hurricane supplies starts Friday

Last October, a monster Category 5 Hurricane Michael, with winds of about 160 mph, pushed an estimated 15-foot storm surge through the town of Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle. It wiped out much of the town, sweeping home after home off their foundations.

Bela and Jake Sebastiao’s house was one of them.

But they’re still living here, in a FEMA trailer, surrounded by destruction, few neighbors and sand, rocks and still-untouched, ripped-open structures.

This is their new life. The area is still struggling to recover, even as it frets over the start of hurricane season.

“People can get frustrated really easy,” Bela Sebastiao said.  “When you look around and you’re still seeing debris and nothing is going as fast as you would like it. It becomes part of your life, looking at debris.”

Granted, much of the debris has been hauled out. But this town still has no grocery store, no gas station, no bank and no new headquarters for police and fire. Not much has reopened. A food truck now serves meals next door to the one pizza joint open, Crazy Beach Pizza.

Up the road at Tyndall Air Force Base, critical national defense fighter jet training returned about five months ago. This is where the eye of the Cat 5 storm made landfall, blasting through the important military base. The base had to close for the first two months, as it was simply unsafe and wrecked.

“When you have a hurricane, first it blows out the windows, then the roof,” said Col. Brent Hyden, who is overseeing Tyndall’s $3 billion rebuild project. “We had that happen to hundreds of buildings on this installation.

The top floor of the air control tower, with its sweeping view of the airfield, was blasted out. It was entirely rebuilt. Hangar 5 won’t be repaired because it would be too expensive to do so. It remains where it was, towering, tattered and shredded. Much of the debris has been removed, but there is still much left.

Work is happening daily, rebuilding dorms for the airmen, repairing, repainting and removing tons of mold from the walls and ceilings.

Tyndall is back, serving its mission, but its population is just 80 percent of what it was before October.

Base Commander Brian Laidlaw said tons of progress has been made and morale is high, but getting back to “pre-Michael” is obviously going to take years.

“We are getting the emission done because that’s our job,” he said. “But we’re doing it with a whole bunch of temporary solutions that we’re putting in place. But these are not long-term solutions.”

In Panama City, it, too, is still “not the same.” Debris remains in yards, damaged buildings remain along Highway 98, the main drag, and 5,000 kids are still considered “homeless,” crashing with friends and family or living in FEMA tents and trailers. About 30 percent of the school kids never came back. More than 50 percent of the apartments still are not livable.

What everyone in this region feels is the need for money. Congress still hasn’t passed the big Disaster Aid bill, due to Democrats and Republicans fighting over details.

But the Senate has now passed a $19.1 billion disaster funding bill. President Trump has pledged to sign it, once approved by the House. That could happen next week.

NOAA is predicting a “near normal” hurricane season of four to eight hurricanes, which is nothing to dismiss. Especially when the big one hits you.

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