Hurricane Michael 's wrath still evident in Panama City months after landfall

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WDRB) -- When Alex Pierce-King decided to ride out Hurricane Michael inside her Panama City home, she figured it would be "just another storm."

It wasn't.

As winds as high as 155 miles per hour battered the Florida panhandle, she listened as her neighbor's pine trees crashed down outside. Those spared her house. Then came the cedar tree next door. 

"I heard it hit my front porch," she recalled this week. "Then, we heard the roof starting to peel back. My husband and my son were covering me, because the ceilings were falling. They were trying to protect me. I cried out to God.

"I said 'Jesus, please help us through this,' and I really do feel like God heard my prayers that day, because I don't think we would have made it out of here alive if it wasn't for that."

On Monday, some four months later, the house where Pierce-King raised her two sons is gutted and roofless. She and her husband, along with their four dogs, live in a trailer in their front yard.

And in the section of northwest Florida known as a popular spring break and vacation destination for Louisvillians, her story is not unique. For many, devastation still reigns supreme.

"You know there are a lot of people in the community that aren't good," she said. "A lot of people in the community are suffering. I feel like I'm blessed in comparison to so many people."

The signs of the lingering destruction aren't always obvious. 

Construction cones line some sidewalks along Front Beach Road in Panama City Beach, while a few high-rise condos have tarps where repairs are still being made. Otherwise, things appear to be business as usual.

Some restaurants, particularly those on the beach, sustained some damage but plan to be open for the rush of tourists during the busy season. 

"The pier roof was damaged, and then we lost the roof on the dining room," said Melissa Traxler, CEO of Pineapple Willy's. "Honestly, we're just trying to rebuild and get back open."

The popular beachfront restaurant and bar plans to reopen this week, but getting to that point has proved to be challenge — not because their damage was particularly significant, but because of the havoc wreaked elsewhere by Hurricane Michael. 

"Everyone needs a contractor. Everyone needs a fence guy. Everyone needs a roofer," Traxler said. "Everybody's in high demand, and they're doing the best that they can to get to you. But you just have to wait."

As a result, it's unclear what spring break 2019 will become.

"I know the condos are really full with construction workers and people that lost their homes. Where are they going to go? And if the construction workers leave, I don't know whats going to happen. I really don't," Traxler said. "It's a catch 22. We want spring breakers here but we also don't want people that have nowhere to go to be kicked out to have tourists."

Inland progress is slower

Pierce-King lives about 15 minutes inland from the popular tourist area in Panama City. Blue tarps where roofs once were and storm debris piles still litter the streets in her area. 

"I can't even wrap my head around everything we need in this area," she said. 

Some residents say relief has been slow. Some have stayed and hope to rebuild what they lost, but there's a stark difference between the beach and this low-to-middle income residential area, Pierce-King said. 

"The people that live here in Panama City proper are the people that are waiting tables out on the beach," she said. "They need us as much as we need them."

Pierce-King said she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis several years ago and no longer works. Her husband is a teacher in Bay County, leaving them with little financial flexibility.

Adding to an already difficult situation, she said, the couple believes they were conned out of around $10,000 by a general contractor shortly after the storm rolled through. 

"We were going to have them take off the rest of the roof and the back garage, because he said we could save the house," she said. "We had another contractor come out and say that this should have cost $5,000 and that all the walls are compromised. So it's gone anyway." 

What took and her husband by surprise was the help they've received from the federal government. 

"FEMA has been very good to us with the trailer and things," she said. "We really have gotten some help through all of this."

It took nearly a month for some areas of Panama City to have power restored. Some homes went without water for more than five days. Many homes and properties have simply been abandoned. 

For Pierce-King, it seems clear to her that Panama City Beach is recovering with ease from Hurricane Michael, while people in Panama City are still struggling with what to do next. 

"I was #850strong for about a good month," she said. "Now I'm #850tired."

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Reporter

Travis Ragsdale joined WDRB in Jan. 2015. He focuses primarily on investigative reporting involving police, local government and infrastructure. He can be reached at 502-585-0817