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'This Is Where America Lives': Hurricane Michael Devastated Working-Class Towns

Oct 15, 2018
Originally published on October 15, 2018 4:45 pm

Hurricane Michael was especially brutal to the working-class suburbs just east of Panama City, Fla., where communities that were just scraping by before the storm now face a daunting recovery.

"This side of town is a poor side of town, and we are usually the last to get the services," said Matilda Conway, who stayed during the storm with her husband and her dogs in Springfield, Fla.

Conway grew up here, in the same modest, one-story brick house where she still lives. She watched helplessly as the storm tore off half of the roof and left the backyard littered with fallen trees.

"We have a small part that's livable," she said. "But we've got everybody else's trees but ours in our backyard."

The suburbs of Springfield, Parker and Callaway saw some of the most intense wind damage from Michael. It's hard to overstate the level of destruction the storm left here: walls collapsed, giant trees and electric poles toppled everywhere. Now these towns face a long and difficult recovery — especially for residents who don't have savings or insurance to help them get back on their feet.

Cars lined up down the block for emergency supplies at Parker Elementary School. National Guard troops threw water bottles and boxes of ready-to-eat meals into the back of a beat-up pickup truck, which belongs to John Shields, who lives in a hard-hit corner of Callaway.

"I've got the only pickup in the neighborhood," Shields said. "Nobody's been in our neighborhood but one FEMA person, and they said it'd be a while before they got to us. We're doing what we can."

A few blocks from the school in Parker, Bob and Risa Smith's house is in bad shape.

"We lost a good portion of our roof. The garage door. Six or seven large trees in the front and the back," Bob Smith said.

It could be weeks — or longer — before the area gets water and power again. But Risa Smith says she and her husband are determined to stay as long as they can.

"I'm telling him, I don't know if I can take it. I'll leave him here," she joked.

But the harsh reality is that many people here can't afford to go somewhere else until water and power are restored.

"This is where America lives," said Conway. "These people, you know, most of them live paycheck to paycheck. And some of them will have no paycheck. And my heart hurts for that."

Conway says she's lucky that she's able to go back to work this week, at a nonprofit day care center for low-income residents.

But it's not so clear when her husband can work again. He has a small business fixing cellphones near the beach. Conway says the building lost its roof, and everything inside is damaged.

"I don't know that Panama City is ever going to be the same," she said. "The beach is fine, but Panama City itself is just destroyed. And it's a nice little town. You know, we're just hoping that a lot of people don't leave, a lot of the businesses don't leave."

Conway says her family will find a way to rebuild. It's the rest of her city she's worried about.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump is expected to visit the areas of Florida hit by Hurricane Michael. The utility Gulf Power says it's working to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands of residents who are still in the dark two weeks after the storm made landfall. That's just the first step for towns devastated by the hurricane. NPR's Joel Rose has the story of communities that were having a tough go of it even before the storm.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: No part of Panama City was spared from Hurricane Michael. But it seemed to be especially brutal to the working-class suburbs just to the east of the city.

MATILDA CONWAY: This side of town is a poor side of town. And we are usually the last to get the services.

ROSE: Matilda Conway rode out the storm with her husband and her dogs in a modest one-story brick house. It's the same house she grew up in. Conway watched helplessly as the storm tore half of the roof off her house and left a big tree leaning in its place.

CONWAY: The roof is basically gone. On the carport, there's a big old tree on top of it. So we have a small part that's livable, but the backyard is just - we've got everybody else's trees but ours in our backyard (laughter).

ROSE: Conway lives in Springfield, Fla., a suburb of Panama City that saw some of the most intense wind damage from Michael. It's hard to overstate what a mess the storm left here. Walls collapsed. Giant trees and electric poles toppled everywhere in communities where many people don't have savings or insurance to help them get back on their feet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How many you got, sir?

JOHN SHIELDS: Twenty-five.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Twenty-five?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We can do that.

SHIELDS: Whatever we can get will be appreciated.

ROSE: National Guard troops throw box after box of ready-to-eat meals into the back of a beat-up pickup truck. The truck belongs to John Shields, who lives in Callaway, another suburb of Panama City. He came to get food and water from an emergency distribution station at an elementary school.

SHIELDS: I got the only pickup in the neighborhood. Nobody's been in our neighborhood but one FEMA person. And they said it'd probably a while before they got to us, so we're doing what we can.

ROSE: A few blocks from the school in Parker, Fla., Bob Smith's house is in bad shape.

BOB SMITH: We lost a good portion of our roof, also the garage door. We have about six or seven large trees in the front and the back.

ROSE: It could be weeks or longer before the area gets water and power again. I asked Bob and his wife, Risa Smith, if they're going to stay in the house until then.

RISA SMITH: We're going to try to stay as long as we can. I don't know. I'm telling him, I don't know if I can take it. But - (laughter).

B. SMITH: The other day...

R. SMITH: I'll leave him here.

CONWAY: Thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You're welcome.

CONWAY: We certainly appreciate it.

ROSE: Back in Springfield, Matilda Conway takes a free bag of food for her dogs from a volunteer who's handing out emergency supplies. Conway says the reality is that many people here can't afford to go anywhere else.

CONWAY: This is where America lives because this is what America is. These people - you know, most of them live paycheck to paycheck. And some of them won't have no paycheck. My heart hurts for that.

ROSE: Conway says she's lucky. She's going back to work this week at a nonprofit daycare center for low-income residents. But it's not so clear when her husband can work again. He has a small business fixing cellphones near the beach. Conway says the building lost its roof, and everything inside is damaged.

CONWAY: I don't know that Panama City's ever going to be the same. The beach is fine, but Panama City itself - it's just destroyed. And it's a nice little town. You know, we're just hoping that a lot of people don't leave, you know, and a lot of the businesses don't leave.

ROSE: Conway says her family will find a way to rebuild. It's the rest of her city she's worried about. Joel Rose, NPR News, Springfield, Fla.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the introduction to this report we say Hurricane Michael made landfall two weeks earlier. In fact, landfall was on Oct. 10 – five days before this report.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.