DESTIN — Hurricane Michael is now making waves — economic ones, that is — in areas that escaped the storm's fury.

Each morning locally, the westbound lanes of U.S. Highway 98 from Panama City into Destin are jammed with storm victims trying to put their lives back together, venturing out to find food, building materials, gasoline and lodging.

At the same time, the eastbound lanes of Highway 98 are packed each morning with emergency response personnel, insurance adjusters, utility restoration workers — and increasingly, building contractors — as Panama City and the surrounding area continue digging out from Hurricane Michael.

In the evenings, the flow reverses, as people who've been in Destin head back to beat curfews in place for Bay County and Panama City Beach, and the people who've been working in the storm-damaged area return to their Destin-area lodging.

Perhaps most immediately apparent is the impact of post-hurricane economic dynamics on lodging options in and around Destin.

"There's just not a lot available right now," said Shane Moody, president and CEO of the Destin Chamber of Commerce. Personally, Moody said, he's had difficulty finding lodging for friends and colleagues looking for places to stay in the wake of the hurricane.

Experiencing an economic boom after a hurricane isn't a new phenomenon locally, Moody said.

"We saw it for a long time after Katrina," he said. Hurricane Katrina hit west of the area in 2005, destroying parts of New Orleans and bringing damage along the Gulf Coast.

That local boom lasted a couple of years, Moody said, and helped — for a time — shield the Destin area from the economic downturn that hit the United States in the middle to late 2000s.

 

Another place where the local post-Hurricane Michael economic boom is evident is big-box building supply stores.

"It's been a madhouse the last couple of days," David Johnson, assistant manager of the The Home Depot on Commons Drive in Destin, said Thursday afternoon as he wheeled a pallet of charcoal briquets into the store. The Home Depot store in Panama City was heavily damaged in the hurricane, so customers are instead coming to Destin, he explained.

As the hurricane churned in the Gulf of Mexico last week, the local Home Depot was stocked with "pre-strike" supplies — things like generators, tarpaulins and gas cans — that customers were likely to want or need in the immediate aftermath of the storm, according to Destin store manager Jaime San Miguel.

Now, with the focus changing to recovery and repair, Home Depot customers are looking for things like large plastic storage containers for salvaged belongings, according to San Miguel.

That was the case for Ephraim Lopez and his wife, SanJuanita. The Panama City couple were vacationing in Ohio when the storm hit, and came back to find a tree had crashed through their den. They're now staying with a daughter who, improbably, has a condominium in Panama City Beach that survived the hurricane.

In addition to picking up a number of large plastic storage containers for retrieving some of their belongings, the Lopezes were in Destin to see an orthopedist about SanJuanita's wrist, which she broke while hurrying to a Verizon store in Panama City, one of the few places with internet and cell phone service.

For the immediate future, the couple said, they'll be making regular trips into Destin for recovery supplies and gasoline. Incredibly, Ephraim Lopez said, it's quicker to drive to Destin for gasoline than to find and wait for gas in Panama City.

Residents of Panama City for 36 years, the Lopezes have no plans to leave as a result of the hurricane.

"I can't get her out of Panama City, " Ephraim Lopez said, joking, "I've offered her a million dollars."

It's not only big-box stores, gas stations and hotels and condominiums that are seeing the economic boom. Plenty of other, locally owned, businesses are also experiencing a spike in customers.

Among them is the Klean Wash laundromat in Santa Rosa Plaza, a strip shopping center on the westbound side of Highway 98 in in Santa Rosa Beach.

On Thursday afternoon, Lola Macomb and her 10-year-old daughter, Scarlet, were washing clothes after driving in from hard-hit Lynn Haven. Macomb and her family evacuated to Alabama before the hurricane, and returned to find a tree fallen on their house. they don't have electricity, but unlike many people in Lynn Haven, their home was still habitable.

"We feel blessed," Macomb said. Still, she's now driving four hours every other day (90 minutes into Santa Rosa Beach and more than two hours back to Lynn Haven) to keep up with the laundry for her husband, their three children and her two aging parents.

"I haven't been to a laundromat in so many years," she said. "I had to ask how to use the machines."

Macomb's story is typical, according to Doreen Baca, who owns Klean Wash with her husband, Jerry.

"We're actually overwhelmed," Doreen Baca said when asked how much the hurricane's aftermath has boosted business. On occasion, she said, people have been waiting three-deep to use one of the laundromat's 20 washers and 20 dryers.

But, she added, she and her husband and their employees are mindful of the tough circumstances in which some of their customers are now living, and will often cover the cost of detergent and washing for some of their more unfortunate customers.

In some instances, the clothes that people bring in are "all they have left in the entire world," Baca said. Sometimes, the clothes, covered with mud and flecked with building insulation, clearly have been salvaged from destroyed homes and yards, she said.

"We're doing anything we can do on cost," she said. In some instances, that help comes from the local lodging businesses for which Klean Wash provides "wash, dry and fold" concierge services.

"They'll say, 'On our next order, add $100 to our bill,'" she explained. The money has already come in handy, helping to cover the $1,000 cost of replacing a large washing machine motor.

"It's nice to have additional business," she said, "but you're giving a lot of stuff away"

Still, she quickly added., "I just feel sorry for the people. I wish I could do more."

A few doors down in Santa Rosa Plaza, Jon Seeling, owner of 98 Bar-B-Que, also is seeing a storm-related influx of business. On Thursday evening, a crew of utility workers from the city of Orlando who volunteered to help bring water service back to the hurricane-damaged area were among the people who stopped in for dinner. Also enjoying a meal were a couple of USAA insurance adjusters.

Early in the aftermath of the hurricane, when people didn't have ready access to automatic teller machines and their credit cards weren't working, Seeling covered the cost of meals. Since then, his son has taken food from the restaurant into the hurricane-damaged area and handed it out on street corners, and Seeling himself is planning to take 600 meals into devastated areas on Sunday to provide free meals to residents and emergency responders.

As far as the customers who come into his restaurant after a day of dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, Seeling said, "If we can give them a half-hour or 45 minutes of a smile, that's what it's all about."

And, Seeling added, he'll continue to try to find ways to help storm victims and recovery workers.

"I wouldn't do it any other way," he said. "My conscience won't let me. My spirituality won't let me."