Hurricane Michael hangover lingers one year later in SW Georgia

By: - October 10, 2019 8:45 am

A tree crushed a portion of Ryan Austin’s house at Lake Seminole in south Georgia. He continued to live in a portion of the house until the repairs could be made a year later. Contributed

DONALSONVILLE – Other people may be praying for rain after a string of miserably dry weeks in Georgia, but for Ryan Austin, the clear skies have given him a reprieve from the rainwater that has been relentlessly trickling into his bedroom for the last year.

To Austin, it seemed as though the rain always fell at night, just as the 27-year-old Seminole County native tried to sleep under his blue tarp-covered roof. Eventually, he moved his bed just to avoid the drops of rain that were waking him up.

Austin has had many of those sleepless nights ever since Hurricane Michael knocked two trees onto his house one year ago today, crushing entire rooms. His Lake Seminole home was near where Georgia’s lone storm-related death occurred when part of a carport killed an 11-year-old girl.

Ryan Austin recently started repairing the roof on his home at Lake Seminole, nearly a year after Hurricane Michael devastated this community in southwest Georgia. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

“It went from being a five-bedroom house to just pretty much one,” Austin said Tuesday, sitting at a table at Jo’s Family Restaurant in Donalsonville, where he works as the manager.

And it has essentially functioned as a one-bedroom home for the last year. The long-awaited work on his house is underway now, but it took his father acquiring his own contractor’s license to make it happen.

Otherwise, contractors can be hard to come by, particularly for those without an insurance check to cover the work or the means to pay the kind of prices quoted by out-of-town contractors. And the available contractors have had no shortage of work, leaving them stretched thin.

Statewide, the monster storm caused about $719 million in insurable losses, according to the state Department of Insurance. Another $433 million in reported losses were not covered.

And the storm smashed into rural southwest Georgia just as farmers were harvesting their fields, devastating an industry that serves as the backbone of many rural economies down here.

A year later, farmers are still waiting for federal relief payments to reach them, and many people in south Georgia and elsewhere are left still trying to pick up the pieces any way they can.

That’s especially true in hard-hit rural Donalsonville, which is one of the last stops before both Florida and Alabama. Seminole County, where the town is located, is where the storm crossed over into Georgia as a still-major hurricane.

A home that was heavily damaged by Hurricane Michael last year still stands in Donalsonville, Georgia. Several homes still have blue tarps covering the roof a year later. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

“There’s so much still not done,” said Jo Woodham, the owner of Jo’s Family Restaurant who handed out about 2,500 meals a day – regardless of a person’s ability to pay or the restaurant’s inability to process payments – during the week immediately following the storm.

“So many of my friends’ houses still don’t have roofs. Trees are still down. It’s hard,” she said. “The town is still in a mess.”

‘It would have just stayed like that’

People who are just passing through Donalsonville – a small town that sits along U.S. Highway 84 – may not notice much obviously amiss a year later other than a few shattered commercial signs.

But venture away from that main artery and it doesn’t take long to see a fallen tree here and there, twisted agricultural equipment and other wildly contorted structures. The most telling signs the area is still recovering, though, are easily the blue tarps.

Christopher Hicks might have put a new roof on his house, but he was struggling to progress any further with the clean-up effort at his home in rural Decatur County, where he lives with his 9-year-old son.

Hicks said he found out too late that his insurance would not cover all his needed repairs, so he spent the money he received for a destroyed shed on a new roof that keeps the rain out, although more work needs to be done.

Christopher Hicks, who lives in Decatur County, talks about the trouble he has had making repairs to his home after Hurricane Michael. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

The 49-year-old Hicks, who is on disability because of his back, said he was turned down for federal aid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency instead referred him to charitable groups for help.

That’s how volunteers with the United Methodist Committee on Relief ended up at his house this week cleaning up downed trees and removing what was left of the shed.

The faith-based group had already covered much of the remaining cost to finish repairing Hicks’ house. On Tuesday, a group of volunteers from Alpharetta First United Methodist Church near Atlanta were helping with the grunt work out back.

“Thank God for people like these people, because I had no more money. It would have just stayed like that,” Hicks said during an interview Tuesday while chainsaws buzzed in his backyard and as his sister’s 15-year-old poodle, Meg, sat on his lap.

Part of the challenge now is just identifying those who most need the help, especially those like Hicks who might be isolated in the community, said Billy Williams, who vets applicants and coordinates the aid for a new program called the Blue Tarp Project started at Friendship United Methodist Church in Donalsonville. The program is funded through donations, but homeowners are asked to chip in what they can.

The project has already repaired about a half dozen roofs in the community, and more than 20 are on a list.

“It’s just going to take time,” Williams said.

‘A blessing of God that things are as well as they are’

The lingering damage may be frustrating for residents who pass by reminders of the storm each day, but a long recovery is no surprise for local officials, who say it may take years to fully bounce back.

“Overall, most people are relieved and are focused on rebuilding,” said Donalsonville City Manager Steven Hicks, who is not related to Christopher Hicks. “They are focused on rebuilding and getting back to normal – whatever that is – as soon as possible.”

Hicks said some areas of town are struggling more to rebuild than others, and the cost to rebuild has left more people eyeing mobile homes as an alternative. He noted that two small apartment projects are either finished or in the works, providing another affordable option.

In City Councilman Lindsey Register’s neighborhood in northeast Donalsonville, several homes still have a blue tarp-covered roofs.

“Seminole County’s still recovering, but it’s a blessing of God that things are as well as they are,” Register said.

State Sen. Dean Burke, a Bainbridge Republican who also represents Seminole County, noted that challenges remain, particularly for farmers. He also said he has noticed an intense fear of storms that didn’t seem to exist among his constituents before Michael.

But he said people in south Georgia aren’t dwelling on their misfortune. Rather, the community is rallying around a child fighting to overcome a rare genetic disorder, anticipating the arrival of the gunmaker Taurus USA – and the few hundred jobs that come with it – and celebrating the opening of a new Chick-fil-A in Bainbridge.

“There are good things happening,” Burke said. “I certainly don’t want to paint the picture that everybody’s just walking around depressed because that’s just not the nature of the folks down here.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.