Connecting state and local government leaders
Eight months after Hurricane Michael destroyed a significant portion of the area, the city manager of Panama City says leaders are looking to residents for ideas on what to prioritize as they rebuild.
When Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018, it was the strongest storm the region had ever faced, and the first Category 5 hurricane in the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Panama City, a municipality with around 40,000 people located between Tallahassee and Pensacola, was hit particularly hard. Ninety percent of homes and businesses in our local area were damaged. There were more than 18,000 change of address requests filed as displaced residents moved from place to place to find shelter. Three million acres of timber and one million trees were destroyed.
But with that destruction came the rare opportunity to radically rethink and reshape the future of our community for the better. To that end, last week, we held a series of community-wide planning events to reimagine our city from the ground up.
Drawing on recently-passed congressional disaster relief funding, plus various state and local funding sources (for example, the city had $12 million in reserves before the storm) we hosted the Panama City design charrette: an intense period of planning in which residents, business leaders, students, parents, faith-based organizations, transportation representatives, and military families met to outline what the city’s priorities for rebuilding should be.
Over the course of a week, we asked residents to look ahead to the future of Panama City, to 2050 and beyond, across four key areas: safety and security, infrastructure, economy, and quality of life. Sessions included 18 focus groups for high school students, hospitality representatives, mental health professionals, and small businesses, in addition to other key constituents. There were also three town halls, and a free design workshop. Though born out of tragedy, the process has brought residents closer together and provided them with hope for the future.
This process is unique for two main reasons. First, and most importantly, we want citizen input to be the main driver of our rebuild efforts. Most cities rely on outside sources for their design choices, whether they be city planners, developers, or others without a vested stake in the community’s success—but we’re fully committed to making sure that our residents’ ideas are reflected in this process from start to finish. Second, the extent of the storm’s damage has given us a “clean slate” on which to build the future of our community. Most recovery efforts deal with only the short-term rebuilding needs, like pumping water out after hurricanes, or repairing damaged roads. In Panama City, we’re not just rebuilding, but rethinking what our community should look and feel like for the generations that follow.
The “Charrette Week” was the start of what will be a multi-year rebuild, and is an example of a strong partnership between our city, state legislators, the state’s congressional delegation in Washington, and key state and federal agencies. We are also working with private partners, including nationally recognized city planning and economic development experts, who are helping us convert resident suggestions into actionable next steps.
Charrette Week laid some solid, specific groundwork for us to begin the rebuild. In the design workshop, for instance, residents used computer-assisted design technology to envision what the face of the new downtown will look like, how everyone will interact there, and the custom design nuances that will make Panama City a more resilient and welcoming place to live. Already, this process has made clear that local residents want to recreate the tree canopy across the city, invest in public transit, expand waterfront access and preserve the historic, hometown feel of our community.
Another key event was the downtown bus tour, which took citizens around the heart of our city, stopping at eight central points along the way. At each stop, citizens were asked to reimagine what that area should look like for the future: what types of businesses should be encouraged to locate there, which housing options were preferable, and how much green space the city should incorporate into future design efforts.
In total, over a thousand residents weighed in on the issues most important to them, including housing, economic development, the arts, education, military, transportation, and water access. Their input created the foundation of our city’s renewal—and now, we in city leadership are prepared to take the next steps to see those recommendations through.
This September, we plan to publish a master report laying out the combined, long-term recovery plan for Panama City. We will then present it to the community for further consideration. After another round of community conversations, city leaders will then get down to the nuts and bolts of rebuilding Panama City to a state better than it was before the storm.
Panama City still faces many challenges on the road to this goal. The lasting effects of Hurricane Michael hover over everything we do. The latest estimates of the hurricane’s cost in North Florida now top $6 billion. The total cost for debris cleanup in Panama City alone is estimated at $150 million. We also face acute needs in housing, as 66% of housing in our city is subsidized, and much of that was destroyed by the storm. Meanwhile, all students in the county school district are currently receiving two free meals a day to ensure the disaster has not left them without food.
But even so, this week has been unlike anything I’ve ever seen as a city manager, or as an Army General Officer. The participation and excitement shown by local residents has been thrilling. While there have been plans and promises of renewal before, this time it’s different. Thanks to federal appropriations that are now available to us, we have the resources to look beyond these short-term costs and plan for the future. Most importantly, the single-minded resolve of the community in the wake of the storm gives us tremendous momentum towards changing our community for the better in the years to come.
Mark McQueen is the City Manager of Panama City, FL, and a retired U.S. Army Major General.