TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Much of the blue tarps that covered the battered homes across Florida’s Panhandle are gone, as the scars from Hurricane Michael two years ago begin to fade. Homes and businesses have been repaired or rebuilt.
But the psychological and emotional toll wrought from the Category 5 storm continues to linger as families and communities yearn for a return to normalcy, something made even more difficult to regain because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Two years ago, I didn’t think it could get any worse, but it did. This year has been very hard to navigate,” said Ladona Kelley, a student-family liaison with the school district in Calhoun County, one of the areas hit hardest by Michael.
“It’s hard to recover when you’re already in a bad situation because you don’t have the resources or don’t have the transportation and because of the isolation from living in a rural area. It is not an overnight fix. It’s definitely a long-term recovery,” she said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the county seat of Blountstown on Friday — the eve of Michael making landfall two years ago — to announce $10 million in funding to continue repairs on the community hospital, which was badly damaged by the storm.
Earlier in the day in nearby Panama City, first lady Casey DeSantis announced an additional $5.2 million in grants to benefit children, partly to help them recover from the emotional upheaval in the frightening days of the storm as well as the months of disruptions caused by both the pandemic. Recent storms have added to the unease, including last month’s Hurricane Sally and, now, Hurricane Delta which is menacing the Louisiana coast.
The money announced Friday was just a fraction of the more than $830 million in state and federal funding that has benefitted the Panhandle since Michael plowed into the region on Oct. 10, 2018, killing dozens.
Part of the newly announced funds will be used to screen and evaluate children and their families for mental health services and lingering trauma.
“We understand the toll that it takes on a lot of people, and emotionally, too, even two years after,” the first lady said with the governor at her side.
Last year, the first lady helped place mental health portals in dozens of public schools across the six counties devastated by Hurricane Michael.
“Our area is still experiencing trauma from Hurricane Michael and our young children are especially vulnerable.” said Suzan Gage, the executive director for the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida, which benefits from the money. The funding will “ensure that recovery continues.”
The governor has cited the pandemic’s psychological and emotional toll on children in arguing to reopen schools — despite concerns by teachers and some parents that DeSantis is not taking the public health risks seriously enough.
During his visit to Blountstown, the governor again pushed back against his critics.
“This is going to be absolutely catastrophic,” DeSantis said. “We know young kids in particular, because we saw it in this region if they’re school got destroyed and they were displaced with their families, that’s a very, very challenging experience.”
The Florida Education Association has challenged the governor in his school reopening plan, which requires schools across the state to offer in-person instruction.
On Friday, the association, which represents teachers and other school employees, lost the latest round in court when a state appellate court overturned a Leon County judge, who had ruled the governor’s reopening plan unconstitutional. The state’s 1st District Court of Appeal had stayed the lower court decision until it could decide the matter.
FEA President Andrew Spar said it would appeal, even though most campuses have since reopened.
“This case was never about forcing schools to close. It was about safe schools and local control,” Spar said.
“We also brought state and national attention to the needs of our public schools, caused districts to take a hard look at how they reopened, and helped shine a spotlight on the DeSantis administration’s attempts to hide important health information from parents and educators.”
The governor’s office said that the $5.2 million in funding — which came from the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Child Care Disaster Fund — will benefit childcare and preschool providers in a region that saw more than half of such facilities destroyed or severely damaged. The money will be used to build playgrounds, rebuild preschools still awaiting help and expand mental health services.
“With this new funding, we are helping to ensure that our youngest children – who without a doubt have been impacted by the trauma their parents, siblings and neighbors have endured – get the support they need to recover and get back to school and normal lives,” the first lady added in a statement released by the governor’s office.