On Oct. 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael stormed ashore in North Florida. Packing sustained winds of nearly 150 mph and pushing a massive 12-foot storm surge ahead of it, the storm killed 72 in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. It was the most powerful hurricane to strike the Panhandle in recorded history.
The storm’s winds lasted about six hours.
The journey back could take 10 years.
No one faces a steeper climb back to normal life than North Floridians age 50-plus. With fewer years left to recover, often coping with health concerns and facing a loss of homes that sometimes were uninsured, Floridians age 50-plus are among the most vulnerable to storms.
RELATED: Thousands of North Floridians Age 50+ Still Need Help. How You Can Pitch In.
As they work to recover, AARP Florida will be with North Floridians 50-plus every step of the way.
Earlier this year, 35 AARP volunteer leaders and staff gathered in Panama City for internal meetings and a day of community service. Teams of volunteers and staff fanned out across the stricken community to help older Floridians and the Bay County Council on Aging with storm clean-up and repair.
Among the storm victims were Jim and Effie Hernell, 94 and 90, of Panama City. Hernell fought in World War II in Europe, battling his way into Nazi Germany in early 1945. He says that Hurricane Michael was worse than anything he faced in combat.
He and his Austrian-born wife, Effie, rode out the storm at their daughter’s home in Bayou George, just north of Panama City. On returning to their home of 50 years, they found serious damage – a sunporch ripped off the house, windows and doors damaged and heavy roof damage. They still are wrestling with repairs – and because the home was paid off and homeowner’s insurance was expensive in the coastal zone, they had no insurance.
Hernell’s advice: Evacuate if a major hurricane approaches.
A few miles away, 71-year-old Carolyn Bellamy remained in her home with her three-year-old grandson and son as trees snapped and winds howled. A giant sycamore tree in her backyard fell, striking a corner of the home, knocking her window air-conditioner out on the ground and damaging her car.
As the rain continued, damaging her roof, heavy rains soaked first the fiberglass wool insulation in her attic and then the plasterboard ceilings, causing the ceilings all over the home to collapse.
Much of the damage has been repaired, but her car is still not driveable and sometimes struggles to find a way to get to the grocery store and has cancelled doctor’s appointments. As with the Hernells, Mrs. Bellamy had no homeowner’s insurance.
According to Elizabeth Coulliette, thousands of other North Floridians age 50-plus had similar experiences. “Seniors are struggling
AARP Florida State Director Jeff Johnson said he decided to hold the state AARP office’s first meeting of the year in Panama City so that volunteers and staff statewide could get a first-hand look at the damage and loss that older North Floridians endured, and to provide hands-on assistance.
“I wish every Floridian could get the chance to spend a day helping to recover from a storm,” Johnson said. “North Florida will recover and rebuild. As we do so, it’s important to keep in mind the lessons of how this storm affected older people, so we rebuild in a way that makes Florida more livable for people of every age.”
AARP Florida is working with the Florida chapter of the American Planning Association to provide free professional assistance to cash-strapped local government as they plan rebuilding efforts. AARP Florida is working with local elected leaders statewide as part of its work with the AARP-World Health Organization Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. Members of the network work to make their communities more livable, affordable and safe for people of every age.
It was the latest in a series of efforts by AARP to fight for and equip older North Floridians to recover from Hurricane Michael:
In January, AARP Florida and AARP Foundation announced $905,000 in grants to 11 North Florida organizations serving older people. Ten of the organizations were working in Panhandle communities hit by Hurricane Michael to provide care for older people. The 11th organization, Legal Services of North Florida, will use grant funds to help finance legal assistance to older people hurt by the storm.
AARP also is working with Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis – a Panama City native – and other elected officials to spread the word about con artists and scammers seeking to prey on storm victims.
Within three days of the storm, AARP launched social media and web-based information to help individuals find resources and stay safe. With hundreds of thousands of North Floridians lacking power and without cell phone service, the Association launched radio advertising providing public service information to the only communications systems most people still had – their battery-powered radios.
In December, AARP mailed some 20,000 informational brochures to AARP members in 12 storm-affected counties, equipping them with helpful information to ward off scammers and con artists. Created by AARP Florida staff, the brochures are specifically geared to providing older Floridians with the information they need to recover from storm damage.
AARP is continuing to work with aging-service organizations in North Florida to connect older storm victims with assistance.
To learn more about AARP’s disaster response or to prepare for the 2019 hurricane season, go to aarp.org/fldisasterhelp.org