Restarting the economy is nothing new for hurricane-ravaged Panama City, Florida

Restarting the economy is nothing new for hurricane-ravaged Panama City, Florida

Mark McQueen knows something about reopening an economy.

McQueen had barely assumed the role of city manager for Panama City when the Florida Panhandle town of 40,000 was decimated by Hurricane Michael 18 months ago. The Category 5 storm destroyed thousands of homes, smashing commercial buildings to splinters, ripping off roofs and blowing over trees and telephone poles.

McQueen has been leading the effort to rebuild the city and its economy ever since. Now the nation is poised to join him as it tries to transition out of a coronavirus shutdown in coming weeks and months. In some ways, the city will start its reopening from behind the rest of the U.S. since it hasn't fully recovered from Michael.

But in other ways, the city has a head start. People here are familiar with what an economic reboot entails.

"Actually, it was less than a month," recalls McQueen, a retired two-star general, of his "experience" on the job when the storm hit. "I was winding up my 36-year military career while still commanding more than 8,000 soldiers."

Utility crews set up new poles and utility wires in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Panama City, Fla., on Oct. 18, 2018.

During the transition, he had taken some time off – to donate a kidney to a church member he barely knew whose health was failing significantly.

"My first day on the job was Sept. 24," he says. "Hurricane Michael hit two weeks later."

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The damage was historic. More than 14,000 displaced residents and more than 5,000 instantly homeless children. And one of his major tasks was overseeing removal of more than 30 million cubic yards of debris. That's the equivalent of 38 years’ worth of normal collections.

The federal government was little help, he says.

"Panama City has received fewer state and federal disaster relief dollars than any other city hit by a storm of this magnitude," he says.

The city lost about 25% of its population and was still recovering when the pandemic materialized. Not all of businesses had reopened. The City Commission actually voted to extend the state of emergency order for Hurricane Michael on April 14 – the same day it also extended the state of emergency for COVID-19.

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However, the city has made enormous strides and accomplished a great deal, he says.

"The lessons learned from Michael are immediately applicable to the work that must be done in Panama City and across the country to weather the damage from this pandemic," McQueen says.

More than 1,000 Floridians have died from the coronavirus since the nation's first recorded death in February. The state has logged more than 30,000 confirmed cases. Panama City is the county seat for Bay County, which has reported 63 cases and two deaths.

Mark McQueen, Panama City manager

Several states, including neighboring Georgia, have begun controversial efforts to reopen. Florida remains under a stay-at-home order through the end of April, but Gov. Ron DeSantis has given some municipalities the green light to reopen beaches. DeSantis has asked his state coronavirus task force for a phase-in plan for reopening the state.

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McQueen says the economic impact of the pandemic will mirror that of the hurricane in some ways. McQueen talks of a “V-shaped recovery curve" with a number of businesses reopening quickly.

"Some are even talking about there being a 'W' shaped curve with a possible second wave of the virus or a spike in bankruptcies bringing another dip," he says. "I, however, believe the curve will look like a 'U,'” much like the curve seen following Michael. Businesses will slowly reopen as conditions are appropriate."

Communication is key, McQueen says. Leaders should communicate early and often, which will foster trust and help reduce anxiety born of uncertainty and displace rumor and speculation. McQueen references the “emotional curve" developed by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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"Equally important to successfully navigating a crisis is the twin need to recognize the six distinct phases of emotional reaction," he says. "From fear and uncertainty through disillusionment and finally to reconstruction."

Thus the emergence of anti-quarantine protests in the U.S. is understandable as optimism morphs into disillusionment, he says.

Every community across the nation is at a different point in this curve given their pre-COVID-19 underlying economic conditions, population density and the arrival time of the virus, he says.

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"One piece of advice, document everything," he said. "Elements of federal assistance are often contingent on showing the money was properly used. "

"Pre-disaster planning is critical," McQueen says. The warning lead-time for a storm is a few days. COVID lurked for months. And he noted that federal health officials have warned a second wave could be coming in fall or winter.

"The best time to prepare for an event is before it happens. With the pandemic in full swing, communities should look ahead," he said. "The time to plan for that crisis is now."


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