Gerald Herbert / AP

The Washinton Post published a story, Survivors of Hurricane Michael In The Florida Panhandle Fear They Have Been Forgotten. The story is excellent, and it is obvious that the reporter, Joel Achenbach, was at the scene early after the catastrophe because he noted the “towering” debris stored along the roadways. It is always amazing to me after major hurricanes how there are canyons of piled up debris over ten to fifteen feet on both sides of roads in some devastated neighborhoods. This occurred in Panama City, Florida, as well following Michael.

The point of the local sentiment and my impression of the current situation is probably described best in this part of the story:

Residents here wonder if their fellow Americans understand their ongoing struggle. Charitable donations flowing into the area have been modest. The American Red Cross calculated that designated donations for Hurricane Michael victims totaled $35 million through the end of March. Hurricane Florence, which hit the Carolinas one month earlier, drew $64.3 million. Hurricane Irma….one year earlier, prompted $97 million in giving, and Hurricane Harvey…attracted $522.7 million.

Michael caused 49 deaths and more than $5.5 billion in damage. Work crews have removed 31 million cubic yards of debris in Florida left by Hurricane Michael, compared to 3 million for Hurricane Irma, a much broader storm that affected the entire peninsula in 2017…

Because Michael happened so fast — slamming the Panhandle just 73 hours after it became a named tropical storm — and affected relatively few people in a rural corner of the Deep South, the storm was overshadowed by other disasters. It was squeezed between the floods that consumed North Carolina after Hurricane Florence in September and the wildfires that devastated Northern California in November.

‘To some degree it never really penetrated the American psyche . . . .’

There is also the emotional and psychological aspect of the devastation that is hard to describe to others not suffering from mass catastrophe but is a recurrent theme I find for so many in these devastated areas. I recall speaking with the CFO of my client, Pearl River Community College, and a local county sheriff following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They spoke of the spike in unlawful behavior which they attributed to various forms of post-traumatic stress. They described a significant increase in assaults, alcohol, and drug-related incidents and people not normally being thrown in jail in a community which they claimed was largely free from these incidents.

The Post story noted the same finding:

Many of the lingering effects of the hurricane are intangible — stress, anxiety, depression. Normal rainstorms trigger outsize panic. People are visibly fatigued, wrung out.

Misbehavior among school students has spiked, said Sharon Michalik, public information officer for Bay County Schools, where 4,800 students — about 1 in 6 — are classified as living in temporary homes, which federal officials consider homeless. She said that very morning she’d gotten a note from a teacher who has been forced to move seven times since the hurricane and is about to lose her seventh rental.

In Panama City, Sabrina Fleming is back in business at Peggy Sue’s Barber Shop, which had been reduced to a mountain of cinder blocks and wood panels by Michael’s winds. But Fleming is still suffering from a bad case of disaster fatigue. A wildfire erupted close to her home last weekend and raged for three days, fueled by the downed pine trees.

‘I’m 42, but I feel 82,’ she said. ‘Life is just harder now. Everything takes time. It’s so draining and I want to just run away.’

Florida’s leaders need to visit areas devastated by Hurricane Michael regardless if this is their neighborhood or not. They need to show they care through various initiatives that help provide relief — financial and otherwise. Our legislators need to make laws that hold insurance companies more accountable for full and fast payment.

I would suggest making fewer laws favoring excess and surplus lines carriers who sell policies not regulated by the department of insurance. We need to stop favoring them over our admitted insurance market. Allowing those excess and surplus lines carriers more incentives to sell property insurance policies is not good for the long-term property insurance market and especially not good after hurricanes because surplus lines carriers from out of state are notorious for slow and low payment.

Seven years ago I noted the following in a post titled The Emotional Impact of Catastrophes:

When people have purchased insurance and have suffered a loss, there is a certain peace of mind in knowing that insurance will soften the financial blow that would otherwise add further anxiety to a tragic situation. All of that is destroyed if the insurance policy has significant limitations, deductibles and exclusions of coverage which leave uninsured losses. Peace of mind can also be destroyed if insurance claims handlers are slow to pay or take aggressive non-claims paying positions during the adjustment. This is why departments of insurance need to regulate the conduct of insurance claims departments and be concerned about the trend of modern insurance companies to sell “cheap” insurance through policies that carry high deductibles, low sub-limits of recovery, and numerous exclusions of coverage. Such policies make the insurance contract almost illusory; the promised peace of mind for policyholders and entire communities is never delivered.

Florida has many fine and well-meaning leaders in the legislature and the Department of Insurance. I have been fortunate to have met a number of them over the past couple of months. I would encourage them to read this Washington Post article before considering insurance laws and public policy initiatives.

Thought For The Day

While natural disasters capture headlines and national attention short-term, the work of recovery and rebuilding is long-term.
—Sylvia Mathews Burwell

  • Bruce Holmes

    This is real PTSD. To make matters worse, Mexico Beach owners were not required to have flood insurance making property insurers look to making the ‘flood” came first argument to avoid coverage.

    .I just finished an assignment there that shoots big holes in that using FBC “substantial structural damage” onset timing of wind as the key element.

    These folks need a lot help and you rightly point out are getting the short shrift in many ways.

    • Bruce,

      The wind always comes first! Even insurance companies following Hurricane Katrina admitted that.

      There is no doubt that flood waters carry a lot more mass than air, but the wind
      speeds in Mexico Beach were extreme and certainly capable of severe and total
      damage before flood waters came and washed the destruction away.
      Good luck with your work and thank you for comment.

      • Bruce Holmes

        Who said insurance companies and their consultants tell the truth? ;-)

      • Bruce Holmes

        It is not quite that cut and dry. In Michael at Mexico Beach at many locations, the wind first began to result in “substantial structural damage” with 50% being the trigger point for under FBC for rebuild to current code, but then the moving flood which were in some cases causing damage at about the same time the winds were affecting the property (greater than 50% damage) the water took away the evidence by dislodging, moving building elements away from properties.

        This left the door open for ins. co. consultants to say it was the water not the wind and w/o definitive evidenced which they do not provide, they try to push the water first scenario. Thus, owners get screwed as flood ins. was not required by feds at that location….OOPS!

        Many factors to consider.


        • Bruce,

          I appreciate the unique circumstances of each loss.

          We faced the same thing in the barrier islands off of Pensacola following Ivan in 2004, miles along the Mississippi coast following Katrina, the entire Bolivia Peninsula following Ike in 2008, the New Jersey and Long Island Shore following Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and more recently from Irma in 2017.
          The topography where the specific structure sits plays an important aspect of the analysis which is often overlooked. Looking for eye witnesses from our crazy brothers and sisters which actually stayed in these devoted areas is important as well. Videos are much more common today with every cell phone being a movie projector.

          The actual building components mean a lot as well and when the building was built has to be factored in.

          Experts doing this work better have studied academic studies from the prior storms and be familiar with the newer standards for investigation which ASTM has published.

          Good luck.

          • Bruce Holmes

            Keep up the good work. Between storms there are similarities and there are differences. The key is to know which is which. ;-)