Healing After Michael: Long hurricane recovery expected

Healing After Michael: Long hurricane recovery expected
Trees are snapped near Lake Seminole State Park in southwest Georgia, where Hurricane Michael ravaged forestland throughout the area. (Jill Nolin/CNHI)

By Jill Nolin, CNHI State Reporter

DONALSONVILLE – For now, Pearlie Worlds is selling apparel out of a humble nook in downtown Donalsonville while workers hammer away on a new roof for her grand, century-old building across the street.

It’s been a month since Hurricane Michael ripped the metal roof off and tossed it in the street, and the work to replace it has finally begun. Construction workers are in high demand these days in rural southwest Georgia, where the monster storm slammed into the state.

The Donalsonville native stands at a precipice: She continues to await word on whether her insurance payout will be enough to enable her to begin anew.

For the last few weeks, her building has sat covered in a patchwork of tarps that did little to keep out the rain. Plywood still stands where glass once revealed one of Worlds’ elaborate storefront displays.

“But it’s ok. We’re good. We’re fine,” said Worlds, who has spent the last 15 years accumulating enough inventory to fill the 8,000-square-foot store. “We’re going on to the next chapter in life, whatever it is.

“Whatever the good Lord has for us, that’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “That’s all we can do.”

As Worlds talked on a recent afternoon, rainwater began to steadily drip from the ceiling at her temporary location. She quickly grabbed a bucket that had been sitting nearby.

A lot of buckets are catching water in southwest Georgia.

‘A scar on south Georgia for years’

A month after Hurricane Michael ravaged parts of Georgia, Florida and Alabama, the extent of damage to the hardest hit areas is becoming clearer.

Tuesday, Georgia lawmakers will head back to Atlanta for a special session focused on adding emergency disaster funding to the budget for state agencies and local governments. They will also consider other measures meant to spur economic recovery in these communities, many of which are already battling high rates of poverty.

Gov. Nathan Deal announced last week that his funding proposal would cost the state about $270 million. That’s much more than the original estimate of $100 million, which Deal told reporters proved “far too small.”

The specifics of Deal’s proposal are not available yet, but much of the aid will likely go toward debris removal. Some of it will also help cover the cost of expanded food stamp benefits – about 50,000 families are believed to be eligible – and other temporary assistance for low-income families. Several state officials said they hoped to see some kind of aid for agriculture – an industry that took a $2.5 billion hit.

“We’re going to have to dig into our rainy day fund,” said Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, whose district saw significant damage. “It’s a pun here but it was raining and storming, and now we’re going to have to use to some of that rainy day fund to help these farmers and families.”

Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, whose district includes some of the hardest hit counties, said he worries about the long-term economic losses. People have, for example, had to shell out $5,000 to $25,000 out of pocket just for tree removal – money that will not be available for other spending.

“It’s going to be a scar on south Georgia for years,” Burke said.

“The concern of people down here is just that they’re going to be forgotten,” he added. “They feel like the response from the rest of the state has been positive, but they’re concerned that, with a 24-hour news cycle, by next week nobody’s going to be thinking about them.”

So far, about 3,600 people in 20 counties have been approved for individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That has triggered about $8.8 million in funding, most of which is for housing.

‘Are the people willing to rebuild?’

Communities such as Donalsonville are already seeing aid from the state, said City Manager Steven Hicks. He said the state will cover more than $3 million in storm debris removal, which kept the small town of 2,600 people from having to go to the bank for a loan.

“He knew places like Donalsonville or Blakely or Colquitt are probably going to have a hard time paying the bills, and we would,” Hicks said, referring to the governor.

But the help from the state hasn’t left Hicks worry-free about his town. Hicks said he is concerned over whether businesses and residents will want to build back.

“If they do, the city should come out better in the long run,” Hicks said, referring to new construction built to today’s safety standards and the injection of cash into the economy that goes along with that.

“The cleaning up’s a good start. That helps everybody’s feelings,” he said, adding that the town looked like a war zone immediately after the hurricane blew through.

The cleanup has been slow-going, though, and further delayed by a contract dispute on the federal level that held up the process more than a week. Massive piles of dismembered trees still sit along the roads in Donalsonville and elsewhere in the region. Crumpled pieces of metal roofing also still dot the landscape.

The slow recovery – and the uncertainty of the future for many – has left plenty of residents and business owners frustrated, even as they try to maintain a positive outlook.

“We’re going to make it,” said Judy Dismuke, who owns a store in downtown Donalsonville and who was without electricity and running water for 10 days. “We’re fortunate to be here to talk about it. We could be blown away.”

Donalsonville is located in Seminole County, where Georgia’s lone fatality occurred when a carport flew into a home and killed an 11-year-old girl. The winds here were clocked at about 115 miles per hour as the eye passed over the county.

Blue tarps can still be seen on every other home in town, and hotels and other buildings still show signs of the storm’s fury. Massive trees have been left on their sides for now, and many forestlands have trees that are snapped or severely leaning. Costly crop irrigation equipment lies mangled in many fields.

And then there are also the lingering but invisible effects of surviving a storm bent on such destruction.

“I’ve heard stories that some kids are waking up crying because the storm is on their mind,” said Trent Clark, who sits on the local school board. “Some are doing better than others.”

But in the last week or so, there have been glimpses of normalcy here.

The elementary-school children returned to classes last week. The harvest celebration that Hurricane Michael blew away has been rescheduled and revamped as a survivor’s celebration for this Saturday. And soon, the holiday decorations will deck lampposts and other fixtures in downtown.

Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jnolin@cnhi.com.

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