"It's not even a city anymore": How Hurricane Michael tore up the Panhandle's trailer parks

Many residents still don't have cell service, or they lost their vehicles and can't evacuate.
October 18, 2018, 2:04pm
It’s been a week since Hurricane Michael — the worst storm to hit Florida’s Panhandle in half a century — devastated Panama City, a town of nearly 38,000 residents.

Robert King, the manager of a trailer park in Panama City, Florida, came in with a chainsaw after Hurricane Michael tore through the city and started cutting through the rubble of what used to be his 53-home community, trying to get residents out. A tree had crushed the roof of one elderly woman’s home. Another home was tossed on its side. There was hardly a park left at all, he said.

“They were thankful when they saw me coming through with a tractor and chainsaws to get them out of there, because wasn’t nobody else coming down there to help,” he told VICE News. But what people were most worried about, he said, was whether they still had to pay him rent. Some of the working residents of his park lost cars to the Category 4 storm, so they couldn’t get to work. Others didn’t have jobs left to go to. And everyone needed help with food, electricity, and water.

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“I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” King said. “They don’t got a lot of money in the first place.”

It’s been a week since Hurricane Michael — the worst storm to hit Florida’s Panhandle in half a century — devastated Panama City, a town of nearly 38,000 residents. The storm carried maximum sustained winds of 155 mph and intensified quickly, catching some residents off guard. The extreme weather leveled hundreds of the town’s trailers, which make up 13.5 percent of all housing units in Bay County.

Now, many residents can’t recover or access basic services, owners and managers of trailer parks in the area told VICE News. Without consistent cell phone service, they can’t effectively plan, and some don’t have a car or the gas money to help themselves.

“Oh my lord, it’s like everything is torn apart,” King said. Of the 53 homes he oversees, about 25 aren’t livable anymore. “It’s not even a city anymore, to me.”

In Bay County, 15 people died as a result of the hurricane, according to the Pensacola News Journal. That’s nearly half of the storm’s national death toll: 32 people across Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Along the Panhandle, nearly 50,000 were still without power Wednesday night.

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A home in Country Side Estate Mobile Home Park in Panama City, Florida, wrecked by Hurricane Michael. (Photo courtesy of Breann and Garret DeChellis)

Jennifer Rousseau, a 34-year-old living in a mobile home in the nearby unincorporated community of Southport, said her home was “gone.” “It’s hot and miserable and I still don’t know if all my friends made it OK,” she said via Facebook Messenger, since she still doesn’t have phone service, like many people in her area. Rousseau, who’s disabled, couldn’t afford to evacuate, along with many others living in the mobile home parks that dot the city. Hurricane Michael snapped power poles like twigs, said Debbie DeChellis, owner and manager of Country Side Estate Mobile Home Park, leaving her residents in the dark and without air-conditioning this week. She believes that some of the mobile homes in her 168-lot park can be fixed, but many residents aren’t going to be able to afford the necessary repairs. She’s trying to raise $50,000 for them — mostly veterans and people with disabilities — on GoFundMe. Her park is based in Callaway, where power might not be restored until next week.

“They’re on a fixed income. They’re not physically capable of doing anything like repairs,” DeChellis said. “I have some elderly people that have had heat exhaustion. They’ve landed in the hospital. It’s a slow process for the government, and they need help right now.”

In attempt to cope with the bleak circumstances, people have been stealing goods across town, according to the The Panama City News Herald. FEMA, however, approved Transitional Sheltering Assistance for Bay County, where Panama City is located, so some people can get help with free short-term housing at motels or hotels. “Some of these people have lived in this park for years. It’s their home and they don’t want to leave,” DeChellis said.

But some people can’t get to the services provided by FEMA. Many don’t have cars and most couldn’t pay for gas if they did, said Donald Spears, the manager of two mobile home parks, both called Bay Oaks Village in Panama City. He said he lost 90 percent of his 63 homes in one park and about half of his 26 homes in another. “It looks a bomb went off,” Spears said. “We’re surviving.”

Cover image: Ronnie Poole walks through debris as he checks on a friend's home in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)