Victims of the second strongest hurricane to strike the Gulf Coast feel forgotten

Hurricane Michael disappears from the national media radar

Victims of the second strongest hurricane to strike the Gulf Coast feel forgotten

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The second most intense hurricane ever to slam into the Gulf Coast would seem to command a lot of attention.

Yet, nearly four months after Hurricane Michael bulldozed through small communities on the Florida Panhandle and in Georgia, the storm has virtually disappeared from the country’s radar.

"We call it Groundhog Day," said Panama City Beach resident Lana Knight. "We just feel like we're living that same month out, that we're just spinning our wheels, not going anywhere."

The tiny town of Mexico Beach, population 1,200 prior to the storm, looks as though the hurricane struck just a few weeks ago.

Debris litters a canal, from boat trailers to pieces and parts of house.

Jaques Sebastiao had moved into his home only weeks before Michael struck.

"I did the closing on 10 August and the storm hit on 10 October and that's pretty much it," Sebastiao said.

Officially, Michael’s sustained winds clocked in at 155 miles an hour, a strong category four second in intensity at landfall only to Hurricane Camille in 1969.

In the City of Lynn Haven, north of Panama City, Mayor Margo Anderson is unsure how many people have returned.

"Just here in this town, we have more than a million cubic yards of debris and that's more than we would pick up in the next 25 years," Anderson said.

At Harvest Worship Center, Pastor John Ramsey estimates half the congregation is gone and the pre-school remains closed.

“We had a staff of about 20 people here at the church and half of those people are displaced,” Ramsey said. “So, opening back up is going to be difficult.”

New Orleanians will relate to the many frustrations.

Jack Sebastiao and his wife, Bela, finally got the keys to their FEMA trailer last week.

"The most frustrating thing sometimes, it's not dealing with what the hurricane did to us," Bela said.

Catie Myers, a licensed mental health counselor who is dealing with two damaged house, advises people to just get away for short periods of time.

“I did drive to Destin a couple of weeks back and it was so nice to see live trees,” Myers said.

Lana Knight, who grew up in Metairie and Denham Springs, watched first as her hometown flooded in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and as relatives in the Baton Rouge area coped with the 2016 floods.

“Most of my support has come from people who’ve lived through this in one way or the other,” Knight said.

Michael’s timing proved lousy, coming just weeks before the midterm elections and the California wildfires.

"Then, we had the holidays, and after that, everybody forgot about Mexico Beach," Bela Sebastiao said.

"I don't feel like we got a lot of attention," Ramsey said. "I went to Oklahoma to a pastors conference about a month after the storm hit. Many of them hadn't even heard about it."

People here concede it is human nature for life to go on and the small panhandle communities could not command the attention of large metropolitan areas that have been similarly devastated, such as Houston or New Orleans.

However, for many here, it seems as though they have disappeared off the national media radar.

"Anybody who goes through this is worth of attention because they need help no matter what size they are."

While government aid continues to flow, the relative lack of attention may have consequences for the recovery.

Major donors also are not lining to contribute, according to an analysis by the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald.

The papers note the Salvation Army has received $2.8 million for its Hurricane Michael response versus a combined $125 million following Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017.

Mayor Anderson pushes for the federal government to reimburse 100 percent of the cost to local budgets.

"I would say about this community that they are not looking for anyone to come and give a handout to everyone, but everyone here still needs help."

Anderson noted volunteer organizations and church groups still are involved in cleanup efforts.

"The country has been kind to us and we will not forget it," Anderson said.

They also fight misconceptions involving the tourism industry.

While the storm plowed into Panama City, the separate community of Panama City Beach to the west went virtually unscathed.

The beaches are open for business.

Pastor John Ramsey said he would like people across the country, “to know that we’re still here and we’re trying to come back to life.”

On Mexico Beach, the Sebastiao’s insurance company already paid off and they plan to rebuild.

However, Jaques questions how the community will change.

"There will be houses here," Sebastiao said. "The people are now debating whether it's going to be like it used to be."

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