Following Hurricane Michael’s destructive path through Florida’s panhandle, headlines painted a grim future for timber, a major industry in the region. The losses were huge – valued at $1.3 billion. Yet not all was lost, as some lumber and paper mills in the region are still going strong.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Michael former Blountstown city council member Steve Bailey was worried about the industries that rely on timber.
“Eighty percent of our income around here is timber-driven, whether logging for the mills or chipping for fuel. They’re talking about pulling the mills out now because for the next 30 years, they will have no wood here,” Bailey told WFSU last October. “There’s not a planted pine in probably 50 miles from here that’s not laying over.”
Bailey’s concerns were shared by many. Then-Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam ballparked there could be a 20-year supply of timber lying on the ground, virtually unusable.
Panhandle timber farmers have been watching and waiting for federal aid for a year now. The Florida Forestry Association, an advocacy group, says help has been approved but has not yet trickled down to timber farmers.
That’s weighed heavily on the mind of longtime North Florida Democratic Senator Bill Montford.
“If you look at timber, there’s so many of our people, friends and relatives, had small tracts of timber – that was their 401k. Or it was their grandkids or their children’s fund to go to college, or start a business. And overnight, it was gone,” Montford said recently. “What turned into a tremendous asset was now a liability.”
Montford worries the cost of getting back into the business for timber farmers in many cases isn’t feasible.
Elam Stoltzfus knows the feeling well. The filmmaker lives on 30 acres in Blountstown, and still has a third of his property to clear off a year later. His timber was supposed to be a small nest egg.
“It’s getting to the end now, we’ve got our house pretty much back where we want it, a barn put back up and the animals are happy,” Stoltzfus said. “We’ve got most of our land cleared off – we’ve still got another 10 acres to go yet.”
Speaking almost exactly a year after the storm, former FEMA administrator Craig Fugate says farmers can’t simply wait for an ideal time – re-planting needs to start now.
“Quite honestly, we’re not going to recover a lot of that timber – we need to start planting again.” Fugate said. “Yeah, that’s a long-term crop, but you’ve got to make a decision going forward, or you’re not. You’ve got to start building – if you keep waiting for the perfect plan, you’re going to miss the window.”
Meanwhile, the demand for wood products is still being met by local businesses in hard-hit Panama City. Mid-South Lumber General Manager Dave Williams says companies like his are key to rebuilding.
“After the storm, it was all repair. Then it went into remodeling,” Williams said during a busy afternoon at his in-town lumber yard last week. “Whatever was standing and was good enough to fix they were fixing. Whatever was standing and was not good enough to fix was knocked down.”
Williams has been in the lumber business for decades. He says there was a healthy economy for construction prior to the storm, but demand has increased at points after it.
“There were a lot of things that were just torn completely down. So today, new construction is very strong – we’re at a housing deficit in this county,” Williams said.
It might seem mystifying that, in the midst of a regional timber shortage, coupled with an elevated demand for lumber, Williams’ business could rise to the occasion. But he says that has much to do with where wood is purchased from, and for what purpose.
“All the mills we bought from in the entire area – out of Alabama, Georgia, just told us, call us and you can have as much as you want. So we had no restrictions on how much material we were able to get,” Williams recalled. “As soon as tractor trailers could roll down 231 and get into tow, we were getting material delivered here.”
But lumber businesses selling construction-grade product can’t use the kind of wood that’s most prevalent in the region. Slash Pine.
“Most of the lumber in Bay County that is grown for some sort of harvest and use in the lumber business, or the timber business – is mainly used for the paper mill,” Williams explained. “And I would venture to say there’s very few – very little lumber that comes out of the Bay County area that’s used for the lumber business.”
144 miles to the east of Panama City, lies Perry. Home to the Foley cellulose mill. It processes trees for a laundry list of products using wood pulp. Scott Mixon is public affairs manager for the mill’s owner, Georgia Pacific. Like any paper mill in Florida, it uses slash pine.
“If that storm were to hit here, then it would have impacted wood supply significantly. We take in a little over two million tons annually in slash pine, and that’s both in logs and in chips,” Mixon said.
Panama City’s paper mill did not return calls for an interview. But the Foley mill sources its trees from the surrounding area – and Mixon says had Michael shifted east just a hair—the impact would have been just as devastating if not worse.
“We have over 500 employees, we can account for probably close to 20% of all the jobs here in Taylor county,” Mixon said. “A storm of that magnitude could impact that economic balance, greatly.”
Meanwhile, as Panhandle businesses continue trying to rebound from the storm’s aftermath, Mid-South Lumber’s Dave Williams is remaining optimistic.
“I think a lot of people in Bay County are looking at this as build better. Move forward, and make this even better than what it was – and it was great. It was a wonderful place to live, and a beautiful community before the storm. And the only thing we’re lacking now is some trees.”