WASHINGTON AND HOLMES COUNTIES - Washington and Holmes counties were simply lucky not to be struck as hard as neighboring counties.
One year later, Holmes County officials report nearly a total recovery, while Washington County is still seeking funds for a better future.
"We're still in recovery mode," said Washington County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Tray Hawkins. "We know after a storm that size hits, it will be a hard and tried process."
"FEMA is a slower process than people realized," he added.
According to reports, of Washington County's 3,568 insurance claims, with 2,825 paid and closed claims, 468 closed and unpaid claims, and 275 open claims. As counties still await reimbursement for claims, a handful of county representatives will visit the nation's capital Monday to meet with various agencies to get more clarification on how funds will be disbursed.
"I'm hoping that they will hear our ideas on how to streamline the process," Hawkins said. He said they will seek money for the long-term litigation strategy, a recently announced regional disaster shelter, connector roads, and other top projects.
With a total damage to timber in the hurricane impacted area across the Panhandle at about $1.3 billion, according to Florida Forestry Service, about 113,240 acres of Washington County's 145,179 acres of forestry were moderately impacted by the storm. And with the timber business being a viable economic force in the area, the region's economic outlook is still unclear, officials said.
About 56 percent of the state's economic loss from the hurricane will be uninsured, leaving about $9 billion in uninsured losses, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reports.
Holmes County reported 1,028 insurance claims, with 741 paid and closed claims, 225, closed and unpaid claims, and 62 open claims. Which brings closed insurance claims to 94 percent, 2 percent higher than that of Washington County.
"Holmes County is blessed and we are pretty much back to 100 percent recovery," said Holmes County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Clint Erickson, noting the storm's eastern track saved the county from catastrophic damages seen in neighboring counties. "We were blessed."
However, the impacts of the storm on neighboring counties has drawn a squeeze on the employment and housing markets, according to Director of CareerSource Chipola Richard Williams.
"The economy is slowly moving, but not nearly as fast as we would like, and that's mainly has to do with housing," Williams said.
For several months prior to the storm, employment numbers in both counties were growing - incrementally at times, but still growing. By February this year, four months after the storm, employment rates began to drop.
"We had just, prior to the hurricane, had five months of straight growth. We had just started recovering from the recession," Williams said back in February. "The number of people we had actually with a job had not reached the point that it was pre-recession. But, we had stopped the bleeding - we were bouncing back - and then the hurricane hit."
From November last year to January, unemployment rates had spiked in Washington County - going from 4.2 to 4.6 percent. For Holmes, the trend was similar for that same time period. The rates increased from 3.8 to 4.6 percent.
As of August this year, unemployment rates are back down - 3.4 percent in Washington, 0.1 percent lower than a year ago, and 3.8 percent in Holmes, also 0.1 percent lower than a year ago.
However, Williams said, it is important to note the numbers are slightly misleading due to the fact that the survey to collect employment data credits a county with an employed person based on where the person lives. That is, if an employed person resides in Washington County and works in another county, that person is still credited as an employed person for Washington County.
More than 4,000 jobs were taken with the storm, "reversing a trend of steady growth," FDOE reports.
"We are seeing people from Bay County are moving north ... but a lot of them are still working in Bay County," Williams said, noting people are moving to Dothan area and working there, creating "a labor squeeze" in Washington and Holmes areas.