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'This Is Where America Lives': Hurricane Michael Devastated Working-Class Towns

A man walks through a damaged store in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Springfield, Fla., last week. The area still lacks water and power. Many residents of Springfield and neighboring towns live paycheck to paycheck and can't return to work.
A man walks through a damaged store in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Springfield, Fla., last week. The area still lacks water and power. Many residents of Springfield and neighboring towns live paycheck to paycheck and can't return to work.

Hurricane Michael was especially brutal to the working-class suburbs just east of Panama City, Fla., where communities that were just scraping by before the storm now face a daunting recovery.

"This side of town is a poor side of town, and we are usually the last to get the services," said Matilda Conway, who stayed during the storm with her husband and her dogs in Springfield, Fla.

Conway grew up here, in the same modest, one-story brick house where she still lives. She watched helplessly as the storm tore off half of the roof and left the backyard littered with fallen trees.

"We have a small part that's livable," she said. "But we've got everybody else's trees but ours in our backyard."

The suburbs of Springfield, Parker and Callaway saw some of the most intense wind damage from Michael. It's hard to overstate the level of destruction the storm left here: walls collapsed, giant trees and electric poles toppled everywhere. Now these towns face a long and difficult recovery — especially for residents who don't have savings or insurance to help them get back on their feet.

Cars lined up down the block for emergency supplies at Parker Elementary School. National Guard troops threw water bottles and boxes of ready-to-eat meals into the back of a beat-up pickup truck, which belongs to John Shields, who lives in a hard-hit corner of Callaway.

"I've got the only pickup in the neighborhood," Shields said. "Nobody's been in our neighborhood but one FEMA person, and they said it'd be a while before they got to us. We're doing what we can."

A few blocks from the school in Parker, Bob and Risa Smith's house is in bad shape.

"We lost a good portion of our roof. The garage door. Six or seven large trees in the front and the back," Bob Smith said.

It could be weeks — or longer — before the area gets water and power again. But Risa Smith says she and her husband are determined to stay as long as they can.

"I'm telling him, I don't know if I can take it. I'll leave him here," she joked.

But the harsh reality is that many people here can't afford to go somewhere else until water and power are restored.

Most of them live paycheck to paycheck. And some of them will have no paycheck. And my heart hurts for that.

"This is where America lives," said Conway. "These people, you know, most of them live paycheck to paycheck. And some of them will have no paycheck. And my heart hurts for that."

Conway says she's lucky that she's able to go back to work this week, at a nonprofit day care center for low-income residents.

But it's not so clear when her husband can work again. He has a small business fixing cellphones near the beach. Conway says the building lost its roof, and everything inside is damaged.

"I don't know that Panama City is ever going to be the same," she said. "The beach is fine, but Panama City itself is just destroyed. And it's a nice little town. You know, we're just hoping that a lot of people don't leave, a lot of the businesses don't leave."

Conway says her family will find a way to rebuild. It's the rest of her city she's worried about.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 15, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio introduction to this story, we incorrectly say that Hurricane Michael made landfall two weeks ago. Landfall was actually on Oct. 10, five days before this report.