PANAMA CITY — After overcoming Category 5 Hurricane Michael almost four years ago, local officials believe Bay County now is better prepared to withstand future natural disasters.
However, there still is cause for concern with Hurricane Ian looming in the Gulf.
Hurricane Ian was rapidly intensifying Tuesday as the massive storm hurtled toward Florida, prompting a swath of hurricane and storm surge warnings throughout the state.
"I think we are better prepared than what we were prior to Michael, (but) the city (and) its citizens still remain vulnerable," said Mark McQueen, manager of Panama City. "We still have a fragile infrastructure, and so with that, we're already deploying bypass pumps and generators."
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Since Hurricane Michael decimated portions of the Panhandle in October 2018, Bay County municipalities have received waves of federal funding to help harden its infrastructure.
This has led to the installation of upgraded features, including new power poles, power lines and communication lines.
Still, McQueen said Panama City did not receive the bulk of its federal funding until last year, so the city still has a lot of reconstruction to do, leaving it plagued with outdated or damaged stormwater and sewer systems.
This is why he fears flooding might be the main threat in the face of Ian. Crews were busy Monday clearing basins, ditches and drains in preparation for landfall.
"It doesn't take much rain to have much of an impact right now on this community," McQueen said.
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Like in Panama City, flooding, along with possible high winds, are "big concerns" for Panama City Beach, Mayor Mark Sheldon said.
While the Beach was not nearly as impacted by Hurricane Michael as other Bay County municipalities to its east, the city did experience disastrous flooding in neighborhoods surrounding Lullwater Lake after Category 2 Hurricane Sally hit in September 2020.
The flooding stemmed from a surrounding stormwater outfall that was clogged and overwhelmed by storm surges.
Sheldon said in an email Monday afternoon that all city outfalls, including those near Lullwater Lake, were "clear and will continue to be checked as the storm moves inland."
He also said beginning Tuesday afternoon, crews were expected to travel to all city neighborhoods to clean every drain box.
"Equipment is working on the Beach today at every outfall," Sheldon wrote. "All the outfalls are open and flowing, and even though we don't see any issues with them, we've brought heavy equipment in to straighten them out as a precautionary measure."
In Mexico Beach, which was the area in Bay County hardest hit by Hurricane Michael, City Administrator Douglas Baber said the community still has a long road to recovery.
But he noted that of the structures there rebuilt since the storm, all are "as strong and up to every code you can imagine." The city also has upgraded lift stations, stormwater system, and power grid.
Baber noted 80% of homes in Mexico Beach were damaged by Michael, and the community still is only about 30% to 40% rebuilt.
"We have many, many upgrades since the storm that we did not have prior," he said. "We're not in immediate danger right this second, but that changes as the minutes carry on. ... Everybody is on standby and has a game plan should the storm shift our way at all."
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: Hurricane Ian: Michael repair prepared Bay County for future disasters