SPECIAL REPORT: A breakdown of the FEMA money spent across the panhandle over the last 2 years

Hurricane Michael

BAY COUNTY Fla. (WMBB) — The road to recovery from the storm is just beginning, and fixing the damage Hurricane Michael caused comes with a price. Bay County Commissioner Philip “Griff” Griffits said the recovery could last for years to come.

“When we saw the devastation we knew we had our hands full and it is going to be a long battle,” Griffits said.

Griffits has been on the forefront of the recovery mission. He said after the initial shock of the damages, it was time to consider the cost of repairs. 

“FEMA was on the ground with us within a few days working hand and hand to work through the difficulties of what they knew was going to be a long and rigorous process,” Griffits said. “Two years later we deal with FEMA on a daily basis and we’ll probably work with them over the next decade.”

It’s an expensive process. Bay County has spent nearly $328 million on recovery. Commissioners borrowed $300 million. FEMA has reimbursed a little more than half that amount.

Griffits said the county has repaid $100 million of the loans without raising taxes.

“I would say there’s been a lot of sleepless nights when you worry about the future, but I would say right now we are doing very well considering what we’ve been through,” Griffits said.

FEMA determines eligibility through categories. Category “A” is debris removal.

A total of 19.38 million cubic yards of debris has been collected countywide. Category “E” is for public buildings. In the storm, Bay County lost eight buildings including three fire stations, the courthouse annex and other public buildings – at an estimated value of $12 million. 

Uneasiness continues in Mexico Beach. The beach community took a direct hit from Hurricane Michael, suffering $200 million in damages. FEMA has only reimbursed the city for around $65 million.

READ MORE: Paradise in limbo: rebuilding in Mexico Beach is slow due to economic stalemate

“Considering what Mayor Cathey and them have been through, I applaud them. They’ve been through a lot in the last 24 months,” Griffits said.

Panama City’s storm expenses are around $150 million. City officials have spent about $81 million on debris removal. They’ve received $46 million from FEMA.

City Manager Mark McQueen said the recovery process will take time and must be handled correctly.

“What we want to do is make sure we follow the process correctly because what we don’t want to do is an office of inspector general in an audit that takes place 10 years from now and comes back and claws back the money from the city because we didn’t do it the right way,” McQueen said. 

The City of Panama City currently has 72 projects in the works with FEMA – some big, some small. However, these projects will take time.

“We don’t want to wait 15 years to rebuild the City of Panama City in a much shorter time frame,” McQueen said. “Once these projects are approved we plan to move quickly on them and hopefully in the next three to five years.”

In Jackson County, the total estimated cost of the damages is around $56 million. About $11 million of that is just for debris removal, and so far the county has been reimbursed around $13 million from FEMA.

As the people of the panhandle conquer this journey together – there are some constant reminders of the pain and fear –  but also visions for the future.

“We’re getting there, slow but steady, one foot in front of the other,” Griffits said. “Winston Churchill said, ‘When you walk through hell you keep going,’ and that’s what we’re doing we’re just going to keep going.”

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