The federal government would like to issue a correction. Hurricane Michael, the historic storm that devastated the Florida Panhandle in October 2018, was not actually a Category 4 storm when it made landfall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced on Friday. It was a Category 5 storm, with wind speeds of about 160 miles per hour.
Even when it was a Category 4 storm, Hurricane Michael was already one of the strongest hurricanes ever to make landfall in the United States. But the new classification means it was even more historic than previously believed. It is, according to NOAA, “the first hurricane to make landfall in the United States as a category 5 since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and only the fourth on record.” It is also “the strongest hurricane landfall on record in the Florida Panhandle and only the second known category 5 landfall on the northern Gulf coast.”
Michael’s upgraded category will surely attract attention because of the role of climate change in extreme weather: The likelihood of such destructive events increases with every part per million of carbon we add to the atmosphere. (We are currently at about 412 parts per million, the most in human history). “I fear the highly unusual is the new normal,” the environmentalist Bill McKibben told me via email. And a Category 5 hurricane making landfall is the definition of unusual. Or, at least, it should be.
But NOAA’s report is also important because it inadvertently highlights how terrible the federal government’s response has been. Six months since Michael, much of the Florida Panhandle is still a shambles. And residents of the most affected areas feel largely forgotten by the public and the federal government, which has not yet passed a federal disaster relief bill for areas affected by Hurricane Michael.
In the nearly destroyed city of Mexico Beach, for example, “thousands of people are still desperate for permanent housing, competing not only with one another for the scarce supply of rental units, but with construction workers who have come into the area,” The Washington Post reported last week. “Many residents are living in damaged homes or trailers unfit for human habitation. Some live in tents. Homeowners are frustrated by stingy insurance companies and bewildering government paperwork, and they’re wary of shady contractors.”
Mexico Beach isn’t the only area still suffering. Earlier this month, the Tallahassee Democrat published a series of interviews with Hurricane Michael survivors across the Panhandle who are still dealing with the storm’s aftermath—physically, financially, and emotionally. Thousands of people have yet to return to their homes, and many are having difficulty finding temporary places to live because housing is scarce and costs have skyrocketed. “The ripple effect of the housing crisis is now we also have a workforce crisis, which is very quickly pushing us towards an economic crisis,” Panama City resident Nikki Kelly told the News-Herald.
Florida has already received about $1 billion in federal disaster assistance for Michael from FEMA. But the damage is far beyond what FEMA’s limited budget can provide for, which is why Florida lawmakers and survivors are seeking a supplementary funding bill from Congress. According to Watchdog.org, “More than 102,000 people have registered for assistance and 16 counties have qualified for federal aid in recovering from the storm, which wrecked 2.8 million acres of agricultural and forest land and destroyed an estimated $1.49 billion in crops, including $1.3 billion in lost timber.” The state has also seen “144,300 property insurance claims totaling almost $5.6 billion in damages.”
Survivors’ pleas for more help have been met with little success. That’s because federal relief funding for Hurricane Michael is just a small part of a $13.45 billion disaster aid package that “would send money all over the nation, from California to Hawaii to Alaska to the Midwest and the South,” according to the Post. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are feuding over how much aid should go to Puerto Rico, which is still dealing with the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. “The disagreement has left the two sides at loggerheads with the path forward unclear, even as communities all over the United States struggle to recover from various calamities,” the Post reported.
“[Washington has] forgotten about us, and they’re too busy fighting about other things that don’t really affect us right now,” said Bay County Commissioner Philip Griffitts in an interview with public radio station WUFT. “We need help.” Perhaps that will change with NOAA’s Friday announcement. The fact that Hurricane Michael was a Category 5 storm could help Florida advocate for more federal funding since the dollar amount of federal assistance is usually based on the estimate of damages. But it won’t change the fact that such funding is tied up in a bill that can’t pass because of partisan gridlock.