When Julie McConnell gets a phone call about a lawn and garden question, the conversation inevitably turns to Hurricane Michael.
“They’re calling with a tree question, but you end up knowing the whole story of their life over the past year—if they stayed or if they left, if they’re back in their home,” said McConnell, the horticulture agent with UF/IFAS Extension Bay County. “More than ever, we spend time just talking with people, hearing their stories. Their hurricane recovery challenges and experiences are like ours. We’re more personally connected with the people we serve.”
Until recently, McConnell would have taken those calls from anywhere but the UF/IFAS Extension Bay County office, which sustained wind and water damage during Hurricane Michael. She and the rest of the office’s faculty and staff worked out of the Bay County library building, their cars and temporary offices. Nearly all had to move out of their homes.
But a small sense of normalcy is returning. On September 26 starting at 3 p.m., the UF/IFAS Extension Bay County office will hold its grand reopening, which will include a short ribbon cutting ceremony hosted by the Panama City Beach and Bay County Chambers of Commerce at 4 p.m. The event ends at 6 p.m.
“This is a chance for a fresh start. We’ll be in the same location, but we’ve had to reimagine our work since the storm, so it almost feels like we’re working in a new county,” said Scott Jackson, Director of the UF/IFAS Extension Bay County. “Our office is located in an area that’s been slower to recover. Many of our neighbors are still in temporary housing. We feel lucky to have our home office back. We’re also grateful for all the support we’ve received and continue to receive from the Bay County Board of Commissioners. Our recovery would not have been possible without the commissioners’ help.”
The grand reopening will highlight the variety of programs offered through UF/IFAS Extension Bay County, including 4-H youth development, volunteer opportunities, marine science and coastal issues outreach, insect identification, horticulture and healthy living.
Staff assistant Doreen Hicks is glad to see the Extension office getting back to business.
“It has been frustrating trying to do the job with a lack of equipment and supplies and ongoing repairs. The people at the library, where our temporary office was, were fabulous to us, but we are excited to back in our offices,” Hicks said.
The role of the Extension office in the community has changed greatly over the past year, Jackson said.
“We value the opportunity to serve our community during this critical time. We’ve been able to offer information and recommendations that help people with their recovery. Whether it’s about what to do about downed trees or how to reclaim your boat, people are coming to us now more than ever with their questions. We’ve also found that Facebook and social media have been a great tool for connecting with people and getting out the information to help them,” Jackson said.
McConnell, who coordinates the Master Gardener Volunteer program in the county, said the volunteers have stepped up to help their neighbors in a big way.
“The number of contacts our volunteers have made over the last year are double what they were before,” McConnell said. “This increased engagement with the public is a chance for us to educate more people about good landscaping practices, especially now that many are rebuilding their landscapes from scratch.”
Paula Davis, 4-H agent for UF/IFAS Extension Bay County, is looking forward to being able to easily access and find supplies needed for youth programming opportunities. “I won’t have to think—can I find that? We lost our storage facility in the storm. It’s been a trying year, and I’m not back in my home yet, but it’s so exciting to have a place where things will be organized and life will become more routine,” she said.
Hurricane Michael meant many other adjustments in how Davis delivered the 4-H program. “The Navy base and library have been so good to us, letting us hold our summer day camps at their facilities. We have several new partnerships since Michael. As a community, we’ve really pulled together, and we’re hoping to see our 4-H membership rebound, as families normalize” she said.
Though Bay County is still recovering, the office reopening is a sign of progress, Hicks said.
“I hope to see Bay County continue to recover and come back stronger than before the storm. We are so grateful for all the help we have received from volunteers across Florida and the country,” she said.
To learn more about UF/IFAS Extension Bay County, visit solutionsforyourlife.com/bay.