January 25, 2019

The Wake of the Hurricane – Downey Trees Report from the Panhandle

January 18, 2019

Even today, three months after Hurricane Michael struck a section of the Florida Panhandle, the scene in the storm’s path becomes other-worldly: trees uprooted, leaning precariously, or completely snapped off at incongruous heights. Hundred-year-old Oak trees still standing, but with gnarled limbs resembling ghoulish arms, leaves mostly stripped off. Tenacious Palm trees appearing none the worse for wear, standing sentinel over the twisted remains of a home that once shared its grounds. Storm thinned forests, twisted cell towers, and where homes are not completely demolished, blue tarps where roofs once were. Blue tarps, twisted trees, and piles of debris- everywhere.

This is the Florida that Downey Trees’ Destin Branch is very familiar with today- the Florida Panhandle that did not exist three months ago, but a reality that will be present for decades to come. Downey Trees’ Branch Manager living and working near the front lines of the devastation, Jason Chester, spent some time sending photos and talking to me about the current status of the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Being hundreds of miles removed from the destruction, it is easy for us to forget and move on to the next tragedy du jour, but what you see and will read here is the reality the survivors face every day.

The storm hit on October 10, 2018, as a Category 4 Hurricane, winds of 150 miles per hour. Jason’s description of the damage fields coincides with the path of the storm. The center of the storm’s worst force was compact. When the storm first collided with the coast, it skirted Panama City Beach, where Jason makes his home and where many Downey Trees customers reside. In his neighborhood, approximately 70 % of the homes were damaged: roof shingles gone, trees down, some on homes and some on the ground, windows broken, fences damaged. Jason’s home had 1 uprooted tree that failed, one tree bowed in the wind and 3 trees shifted at the roots. Just 6 miles away to the northeast as the pelican flies, in Panama City proper, the damage rate increased to 99% of homes significantly to severely impacted by the storm. Another 3-4 miles to the north, in Lynn Haven – devastation. A difference of 10 miles was the difference between the loss of 1 or 2 trees and homelessness.

When Jason sent pictures of the destruction as requested, he expressed reluctance and hesitation in taking pictures to record the misery that others were suffering through. He experienced driving down a 2-lane road that was reduced to one lane with debris piled 6 feet high on both sides of the vehicle. After 2 ½ months people are angry. FEMA trailers that were promised are not arriving, and insurance claims are not getting resolved to the satisfaction of homeowners. He has stories of personal friends that had trees removed from their homes: when the adjusters came, they offered them $300. Another gentleman had a workout shed with roll-up doors and was offered $2,000 for what the homeowner believed to be $40,000 in damage.

Following the storm, the early response was focused on caring for the customers of Downey Trees on the panhandle. The brunt of the storm missed Panama City Beach as previously mentioned, as well as points west toward Destin. Storm damage removal for clientele was completed in a few days. One larger Downey Trees crew came from Atlanta to assist Jason and to provide any assistance called in. Most of our clients suffered damage on par with what he experienced personally, so most of their storm clean-up was completed within a few days. Everybody in the company, including the Atlanta crew, dealt with storm damage elsewhere for approximately two weeks. Each week, one crew was pulled off of storm work, and the Atlanta crew went home the week of November 12th. At that point, the focus of the clean-up shifted to major tree debris removal, and by that time an army of trucks capable of hauling large volumes of debris had arrived from all over the South to consolidate the organic material (see photo). Many of the out-of-town companies still have a presence in the area, but at this point Downey Trees is back to its scheduled work.

While it is wonderful to see the kindness of the human spirit come alive in times of such tragedy, it is also unfortunate that disreputable people would descend like vultures to prey upon the misfortune of others. Jason shared a couple of those stories with me. One fly-by-night “contractor” spray painted the side of his truck alerting desperate people that he was in the “tree business.” Jason watched another “contractor” improperly using a man lift to do tree work, wondering at what moment an accident would occur. He heard many stories of price-gouging: $2,500 or $3,000, even $8,500 for a job that should cost $1,000 – and people willing to pay any price to get their roof covered with a blue tarp to protect their home. As enraging as these stories are, this one seems the worst: one husband and wife desperately needed limbs cut away from their home. The unscrupulous contractor said that he would do the work for $1,000, but needed half the money up front. He made the same pitch to several of their neighbors, collected the money, and never came back.

So, what of the spirit of the people? Many have left altogether due to homelessness, and who knows if they will return? It is estimated that one town is at about 25% of its normal population. One can tell from the photos here that it is a challenging time there for certain. As if the efforts to clean up the vast amounts of tree debris wasn’t enough, now the challenge is all of the ruined construction materials: lumber, sheet rock, carpet, metal and appliances – all of these require separation into piles so that some semblance of recycling can take place.
And I would be remiss not to mention another little-told story: that of the devastation in Georgia along the path of the storm. As our focus here is on trees, here is a sampling of the damage caused by Hurricane Michael:

  • Pecans: $560 Million
  • Timber: $763 Million
  • Green Industry: though most of that damage was to Greenhouses and equipment, the total was upwards of $13 Million.

These numbers do not even reflect the rest of the agriculture industry in terms of damage sustained, nor the loss of life, homes, and vehicles as the storm path streaked across Georgia.
Recovery from Hurricane Michael will be a slow and tedious process. Surely it will take decades for the land to heal. But there is a sense of resolve on the Panhandle, and a hope that many of those who fled the area because their homes were wiped away will eventually return and rebuild. For the rest, we have respect and admiration for those that persevere and tenaciously work to recover, day in and day out. Looking in from the outside, those blue tarps seem to be flags of courage of those stalwart people of the Panhandle.

January 25, 2019