Bay County currently isn’t in the direct path of Dorian, upgraded to a Category 3 on Friday. Yet with many homes covered in blue tarps, still clogged drainage systems and far fewer trees to soak up water because of last year's Hurricane Michael, even just prolonged, heavy rain from the storm could mean area flooding and water damage, officials say.
PANAMA CITY — As Hurricane Dorian lumbers toward Florida with growing intensity, concerns linger over Bay County’s weathering of the storm, given its still weakened state after last year’s Hurricane Michael.
The county currently isn’t in the direct path of Dorian, upgraded to a Category 3 on Friday. Yet with many homes covered in blue tarps, still clogged drainage systems and far fewer trees to soak up water, even just prolonged, heavy rain from the storm could mean area flooding and water damage, officials say. And if the storm should turn more toward the county, with many residents still uneasy after Michael, that could mean greater traffic jams from increased evacuations and shelters quickly filling to capacity.
“The concern I have when we look at this city and the state of our citizens is we’re very vulnerable and fragile,” said Mark McQueen, city manager of Panama City. “Any storm of any size would cause hardship to our community.”
The Category 5 Hurricane Michael that slammed into the county on Oct. 10 knocked out all power and nearly all communication for days, damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and downed thousands of trees. The threat to the county from Dorian isn’t nearly as dire, but the storm’s strength is growing.
According to the Associated Press, meteorologists expect Dorian to become a Category 4 with winds of almost 140 mph when it lands ashore late Monday or early Tuesday. The National Hurricane Center’s projected track showed on Friday Dorian hitting around Palm Beach County, then moving inland over the Orlando area. But because of the difficulty of predicting a storm’s course so far out, forecasters cautioned that practically all of Florida, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale, could be in harm’s way.
McQueen said many residents aren’t living in ideal conditions, almost 11 months since Michael.
“If this comes into us as a Category 4 storm, it would be devastating,” McQueen said of Dorian. “Many homes are not fully restored to withstand a hurricane … we’ve got people with tarps on houses and people living in trailers … people who are in a high state of vulnerability.”
McQueen said one of his big concerns is the potential for flooding from the storm.
“The value of trees was not just from the canopy, but also the value to helping absorb groundwater,” McQueen said. “We just lost so many trees.”
McQueen added that the city’s sanitary system is old, outdated and wouldn’t stand up well to a strong rain event from a hurricane.
“We have a problem with that with regular rainstorms,” McQueen said.
Bob Majka, county manager, said the unincorporated areas of the county have their own drainage problems. Nearly a year after Hurricane Michael, around 30 percent of the county’s drainage system is still clogged with debris, Majka said.
“If we have a significant amount of rain sit over us for days and days, that’ll be a significant flooding event,” Majka said.
Majka said an issue facing the county is if residents need to evacuate for Dorian.
“Because of what happened with Michael, we’d expect there to be over-evacuation,” Majka said. “That would put an additional burden on shelters if people decide to go and more burden on the transportation system.”
And the county still has around 500 families in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Majka said.
“They are required to be evacuated, so we’ll have to accommodate that if there’s an evacuation order,” he said.
But while the county could face more flooding, traffic and sheltering issues from Dorian, communications should be better than they were after Michael.
“We’ve had conversations with Verizon and AT&T since last year and now we have phones in hand from different vendors so that, if one goes down, we have immediate access to another provider,” Majka said. “That will reduce the amount of down time.”
McQueen said city first responders also learned from Michael and increased their communication capabilities.
“We’ve made our communications capacity much more redundant,” McQueen said. “It’s not where we want to be yet, but we’ve made progress.”