Every act, big or small, is its own rebellion. Every restaurant and business that opens its doors, every block with power and water, every roof tarped against the fall rains to keep the water out, every dollar spent at local businesses is a rebellion against the devastation, a commitment not to wallow.

PANAMA CITY — Every day in Bay County is a rebellion, a rebellion against everything Hurricane Michael was supposed to be.

It’s the chainsaws that roar to life every morning and hammering of nails as people clear the trees off their roof. It’s the children every morning who peer around piles of twisted branches waiting for their school bus. It’s the elderly woman clearing brush out of the road, whose car windshield is shattered, but she chooses to instead write over the plastic cover the word “perseverance.” It’s the woman out running with her headphones determined to exercise despite the blocked sidewalks and the hundreds of haulers collecting debris. It’s Mayor Greg Brudnicki sitting down with an old friend with a mold problem in the early hours of the morning over breakfast burritos — before the challenges of finding long-term housing and complication of reopening the hospital take over his day — to offer his friend a place to live.

Every act, big or small, is its own rebellion. Every restaurant and business that opens its doors, every block with power and water, every roof tarped against the fall rains to keep the water out, every dollar spent at local businesses is a rebellion against the devastation, a commitment not to wallow.

Not one more thing will be taken, people say, we are going to rebuild better than before.

The only question is, what will that look like?

At Panama City

Hands pressed to his brow, Panama City Manager Mark McQueen takes exactly three seconds to think. Speaking too quickly to himself to finish the words, he runs down his to do list and swirling thoughts. What comes next?

“Okay,” he finishes, picking up one of the three phones front of in him to make what was deemed the most pressing call.

And there are many, many calls to make.

In a race against the clock, Panama City is hoping to turn the relatively short recovery process from Hurricane Michael into decades worth of economic development. This is the time, leaders say, to get done all of the things that have been talked about over the years — improving the water and sewer, redeveloping the marinas, building premiere parks — as well as initiatives never before dreamed about like enticing Verizon to build a 5G network or creating a plan that would allow lite rail to one day come to the city.

The options are to capitalize on the moment and build a better future than previously dreamed, leaders say, or standby and watch everything the community has worked for slip away as the area hemorrhages its most valuable resources — people. 

“Let no good disaster go to waste,” McQueen said.


A blank slate

While Mexico Beach was washed away in recording-setting storm surge, Panama City, and much of Eastern Bay County, was blown away on Oct. 10.

Two hours of catastrophic, 155 mph winds brought the city to its knees, downing thousand of trees, ripping apart family homes, destroying businesses, taking out infrastructure, creating gaping holes in churches, dismantling piece by piece the things that made Panama City a place people wanted to live. Emerging from the storm, people all over asked themselves how and if they could stay here, what would still be here for them?

The answer, leaders say, is a better city.

For a long time, people have quietly — or sometimes loudly — accused Panama City of standing in the way of its own progress, of not being willing to move forward. Projects, like the long talked about Panama City Marina redevelopment or bike paths, have stagnated.

But now, Michael has pushed the city so far forward there is no going back.

“Back doesn’t exist,” local attorney William Harrison, who has been working with the city for free since the storm, said.

The option to postpone work on the marina, which has been ripped to shreds, isn’t there anymore. Nor can officials shy away from talks about low income housing. Access to medical treatment has become a top priority. The parks will need attention. Utilities can't wait to be fixed.

In fact many of the conversations from before the storm have become almost moot points, as there is no longer an option to keep things how they were. Just a blank slate, McQueen said, a sense of urgency, and an opportunity.


The plan

“If we don’t make a plan someone else will make it for us,” McQueen said.

This is a lesson McQueen knows better than anyone else. As a two-star general in the Army Reserve, he’s been the person making the plan for someone else.

That’s not what he wants to see happen here.

Here, he, Brudnicki and Harrison want to set the model for what recovery looks like, for how to leverage the hundreds of grants that just became available, and for how to make the most of the attention and federal funds a community has after devastation.

That plan started in an afternoon brainstorming session between McQueen, Brudnicki, and Harrison at a conference table in a borrowed Verizon trailer that resulted in a six page document. The plan, they stress, took old comprehensive plans into account and there will be a period for public comment.

But they wanted a starting point, and so they developed a 15-point plan, a campaign strategy, for the city meant to look at the key aspects of the city— utilities, transportation, environment, energy, agriculture, economic development, education, medical, governance, technology, quality of life, housing, life safety, military support and capital improvement — and set goals for each one.

“Our goal is to set a standard for others to follow,” said Brudnicki. “We want people to know we care about them. We don’t want flight.”

Some of the goals are obvious, like aiming to provide excellent police and fire, or promoting collaborative government, or protecting St. Andrew Bay from runoff. Some points are almost quirky, like establishing a signature seafood to help promote tourism or establishing locations for beehives to help with agriculture. Others are the type of news people have been waiting to hear, like the city wanting to plant 100,000 trees by 2025, plans to improve the park system, and plans to expand, promote and further incorporate the arts into the area.

A lot of them are loftier.

Under utilities, the city plans to push for subterranean service — like in Central Florida — to try to prevent another Michael. They want to fix the water and sewer system, harden it (it’s worth noting out of 174 lift stations, only three were functional after the storm), and create something state-of-the-art There’s even a plan to add technology to trash services that would increase efficiencies and possibly encourage recycling. Altogether an impossibility before, but now leaders say this all is in reach.

For transportation, the goal is creating a system that encourages bike paths and walking spaces, but also lays the groundwork for infrastructure like high speed rail to come to the county, because if the planning isn’t done now, they options might not be there later.

To make people want to stay here, the city is considering an unprecedented investment in the schools, including establishing a municipal charter school system with Bay District Schools as a partner. This, Harrison said, could be an opportunity to reduce the red tape teachers face and improve the quality of the education Panama City students are receiving.

To make people want to invest here, the city is getting ready to pitch making from the Hathaway Bridge to Port St. Joe an Opportunity Zone, a program that gives investors preferential treatment for economically stressed communities, to help bring private investors to the area. The city also plans to support established industry, the medical community, and encourage military support. The goal is to create a thriving economy so people want to live here.

And then, there’s the challenge of making sure people have a place to live. After Michael, the city wants to eliminate substandard housing units, protect the neighborhoods from blight with strong codes, and make sure there is adequate low-to-moderate income housing.

It’s a big, big plan, but “there’s never been a better time to do this,” McQueen said.



It’s highly unusual for a community to have a plan like this one month out from a storm. In fact, the FEMA representative McQueen is working with said he’s never seen anything like this before.

“Usually, people are still focused on the day-by-day,” he told McQueen, while meeting for breakfast in a tent behind a police station one rainy morning.

But this is the plan city leaders feel their city needs right now. This is the beginning of the answers to all the questions that have become part of daily conversations about how the city might one day rebuild. It's limited to the city limits, but leaders say there is no reason why others can't copy it.

In one-on-one meetings where McQueen has pitched the fundamentals of the plan and taken suggestions, no one has been opposed.

The city will be soliciting public input, but time, McQueen said, is not on their side. There’s a finite window where resources will be available. To capitalize on that the goal is to have a plan codified by the beginning of January.

“We have to be the champions of hope that things are going to be better off,” Harrison said. “We have to capture hope and aspiration, to get people to say ‘This is the best thing that ever happened to us.’”