PANAMA CITY — Bay County can breathe a sigh a relief. Saturday is the last day of hurricane season and the Panhandle has made it out without a single tree blowing over.
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Last year was different. A hurricane so violent it had to be upgraded to a Category 5 in its aftermath, left a mess of destruction to an otherwise green and coastal, yet quaint part of Northwest Florida.
An estimated 85% of Panama City's structures were damaged or completely leveled, more than 25% of its population was dislocated, and its infrastructure was further compromised, which has resulted in regular sewer spillage into roadways.
Mexico Beach is thought to have received the brunt of the storm. Nearly 100% of its buildings were destroyed or damaged. The city processed about $60 million worth of debris. The situation was so dire and the road to recovery so rough that U.S. Highway 98, which runs through the Gulf-front city, was reopened just last month.
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Springfield, Parker, and Callaway were not spared, having been situated near Mexico Beach and receiving similar structural damages.
Some federal estimates say the storm racked up about $25 million in damages.
But, losses are not the only story that can be told. A year out, officials reflect on what they are thankful for and how their cities, and the county, secured many organic wins in the moments following the hurricane.
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"We are very fortunate that we had so many volunteers that came into the area and a lot of them are still here and helping us to recover," Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki said.
He said volunteers worked for more than 8,000 hours to help immediately following the storm.
"Everything that's been done, there hasn't been a bill to attach to it," he said. "People were certainly short of funds ... but that was subsidized by the kind hearts of individuals and organizations that came in and stepped up and tried to help us recover."
Lynn Haven City Manager Vickie Gainer also pointed to assistance from the volunteers and the willingness of the county's cities to work together.
"I’m grateful for the thousands of volunteers who helped residents see a bright horizon when times were very dim," she said. "I’m thankful that the rebuild of city is well underway and new businesses are sprouting up every day or slowly recovering."
"I’m thankful for the many other municipalities that have bonded together to form a union that helps us all in the progress of recovery," she said.
For Mexico Beach Mayor Al Cathey, he is thankful for a committed team that did not hold back in the face of a massive storm.
"We are at ground zero with so much of our city destroyed," he said. "But I am thankful for our city workers, that we maintained the stamina that it takes to start this recovery process — a town our size, with the amount of work to be done."
"There's so many that have made a contribution that we should be thankful for — everyone in Bay County should be thankful for," he said of volunteers. "I don't know of any greater blessing than that."
Although Panama City Beach did not suffer as much as its surrounding cities, Mayor Mike Thomas said his employees had to pull through, as many of them lived on the other side of the Hathaway Bridge.
"While we did not receive much damage on the west end of the beach, our employees lived in a variety of communities scattered throughout the county," Thomas said. "The stress from their lives is relieved somewhat (this year) and they can enjoy the full meaning of Thanksgiving, and that makes me thankful as well."
Callaway City Manager Eddie Cook said the city of Callaway is thankful for its resilient residents.
"Our citizens have proven their resiliency by staying focused and dedicated to their recovery efforts," Cook said. "They took a large hit from Hurricane Michael, but pulled together not only helping themselves, but helping each other."
"We are also thankful for the leadership of our city officials and employees. Even while dealing with their own issues, they worked tirelessly to clean up and rebuild our great city," he said. "There was no one person."
Parker Mayor Richard Musgrave has a list of things his city is grateful for, mainly, the perspective of seeing their way to recovery.
"Even though we lost a large portion of our population, we were able to adjust our expenses to match the much lower revenues and keep our finances secure," he said, noting Parker had no casualties from the storm. The storm "demonstrated what incredible employees we have, putting their own storm-related problems aside to focus on our citizens."
"Repair, renovation and rebuilding continues, insurance settlements are reached, capable contractors are slowly getting to jobs," he added. "And if one looks above all the fray, we can see a terrific vision for our area."
It's the day-to-day effort of the residents that has kept Springfield Mayor Ralph Hammond thankful.
"Our city continues the recovery efforts daily, one step at a time, some smaller than others, but we are moving forward," Hammond said. "We still have a very long way to go, but our city will be better as we progress than we had been in the past."
"I am personally thankful for Team Springfield," he added, and "the support and hard work each member has provided in our recovery efforts. I am most thankful for the Lord keeping us safe during Hurricane Michael and afterwards ... and the blessing of not having another weather event throughout the past year."
The county was prepared for whatever the season would bring, but relieved that no significant weather event touched the area.
"This Thanksgiving we remain thankful for — and grateful to — our Bay County employees," Bay County Manager Bob Majka said. "These women and men work so hard every day, and their commitment to our community over the last year has been nothing short of remarkable, particularly as many of them faced significant personal challenges of their own in recovering from Hurricane Michael."
Majka said the closure of hurricane season without any significant threat of dangerous weather was a relief.
"While we were prepared to manage the threats posed by tropical weather this hurricane season, we’re certainly glad we didn’t have to," he said.