Florida trailer park manager Robert King spent most of Tuesday going door-to-door across the 53 homes he oversees, warning residents to heed evacuation orders and flee Panama City ahead of the monster hurricane hurtling toward the Panhandle. But that turned out to be easier said than done: More than half told him they didn’t have the means to get out of town.
King, who manages the Pines/Palm Haven Mobile Home Park in Panama City, told them to hunker down and try to ride out the area’s worst storm in a century as best they could. Worried about leaving his tenants alone, he decided to stick out Hurricane Michael too, from his home about 10 miles away. By Wednesday afternoon, he told VICE News, the mobile home park had already lost power and he has been fielding calls from scared residents ever since.
“The people I talked to inside the park, they just can’t afford it,” King told VICE News in a phone interview Wednesday. “A lot of people don’t think nothing about it.”
That’s the plight for a lot of residents near Panama City, Florida, where Michael made landfall as a devastating Category 4 storm Wednesday afternoon. The median household income there is $38,397, according to U.S. Census data, while the state’s overall median income is closer to $49,000. In Bay County, where Panama City is located, about 13,600 residences — 13.5 percent of all housing units — are mobile homes, according to government data. Parts of the county were put under an evacuation order early Tuesday morning, along with parts of Wakulla and Gulf counties.
In all, more than 375,000 Floridians are under evacuation orders across dozens of counties. Further evacuation orders are in place across Georgia and Alabama, which are also in the hurricane’s path.
By now, it’s too late for those who stayed in place to do anything but hunker down and hope for the best. Wednesday morning, Bay County’s emergency services department warned people they could no longer evacuate, since the hurricane was quickly approaching with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph. Some areas around the Panhandle could see a 14-foot storm surge, according to the National Hurricane Center, and the hurricane might dump up to 12 inches of rain in some isolated areas.
When King was knocking on doors at his mobile home park on Tuesday, Hurricane Michael was only a fast-moving Category 2 storm. Some people didn’t think to leave until the last minute, although King says he’s certain the residents at his park with disabilities got out.
In other nearby mobile home parks, that wasn’t always the case.
Jennifer Rousseau, who lives in the county’s unincorporated community of Southport and is disabled, said she wasn’t able to get out in time since she doesn’t have a car. Because she lives in a mobile home, she said she’s terrified of the storm. She’s not alone: 14 other people on her road, spread across four mobile homes, were forced to stay behind too, she said. One of her neighbors has a seizure disorder, she said, and some of the children can’t swim.
“I’m trying not to panic,” Rousseau, 34, said by phone. She doesn’t want to leave her pets behind, and doesn’t have the crates necessary to take them along to a shelter. “I just want it to be done. I’m so scared.”
She called an emergency search-and-rescue team Wednesday morning, and they said they’d come and get her when the storm cleared up.
Tommy Ford, the sheriff of Bay County, said in a news conference Tuesday that he was “not seeing the level of traffic” he had expected following evacuation orders. He warned that “this is not a typical storm” and pleaded for more people to leave the county.
Rousseau told VICE News it’s not that she didn’t want to leave before the storm hit — she just didn’t have the means to do it.
“People don’t understand that we only get a few days' notice. We live on a structured income, like Social Security” Rousseau said. “By the time we get our checks on the first, our bills are paid on the third, and we’re broke. Some of us don’t have families we can call.”
Theresea Martin, 33, works as a customer service representative and lives in a mobile home across the street from Rousseau. She also stayed behind to care for her three dogs and two cats, but she took her mother and daughter to her aunt’s house, which is nearby but a bit sturdier.
“They have to be up-to-date on shots, and one of our kittens is not old enough, and they’re not fully vaccinated, so they won’t take us,” Martin said, explaining why she didn’t go to a shelter. She says she does have a car, but explained it’s not easy to leave town at the drop of a hat.
“I just got a new job,” she said. “Our pay is once every two weeks. I didn’t have the funds to get fully evacuated, and I wish that I could have.”
Donald Spears, the manager of Bay Oaks Village Mobile Home Park in Panama City, told VICE News he was able to evacuate but had to leave 63 mobile homes behind after the park’s management passed out letters warning residents to leave on Monday.
“Some of them didn’t have the money to go anywhere,” Spears said, noting he paid $510 to get two last-minute hotel rooms in Montgomery, Alabama — a fairly average rate, he said. “They’re broke.”
Cover image: SAINT MARKS, FL - OCTOBER 10: The Cooter Stew Cafe starts taking water in the town of Saint Marks as Hurricane Michael pushes the storm surge up the Wakulla and Saint Marks Rivers which come together here on October 10, 2018 in Saint Marks, Florida. The hurricane is forecast to hit the Florida Panhandle at a possible category 4 storm. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)