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“We’re not OK:” Panama City’s poor are still devastated after Hurricane Michael

“People just need to know that we’re not going to be OK, we’re not OK.”

by Emma Ockerman
Nov 15 2018, 3:56pm

After Hurricane Michael wrecked Panama City, Florida, last month, decimating her rental home, Cynthia Carter worried she wasn’t going to make it out alive. As it turned out, surviving the storm was the easy part.

Carter, a single mother of two, was eventually able to find a $78-a-night hotel room in Pensacola, but the future looks bleak. Though Carter receives Section 8 housing assistance, it’s unclear whether there will be any cheap apartments left for her to rent once the dust settles.

“Nothing available, nothing available to rent,” Carter said. “It’s horrible.”

In the meantime, money has run out. The 28-year-old homemaker has to leave the hotel Thursday morning, on her daughter’s birthday. She’s trying not to talk about all this in front of her kids, she said, who were deeply traumatized by the storm. Her 6-year-old daughter still cries at every thunderclap and chance rainstorm that passes outside their tiny hotel room, she said.

Carter doesn’t know where she’ll go next, but she’s hopeful she can stay with her mother for a couple of days. She’s applied for FEMA assistance three times — twice online, and once over the phone. She still hasn’t heard back. (When VICE News asked a FEMA spokesperson about Carter’s case Wednesday, they said they’d get in touch with her right away.)

“There’s people in tents, there’s people that’s homeless,” Carter said about her hometown. “The rent is going up, people are wanting to charge $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom. You don’t even make that in a month’s time in Bay County.”

When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10, it was the fourth-strongest hurricane to ever make landfall on the mainland U.S., and the worst hurricane to ever hit the Panhandle. Michael tore through the area as a Category 4 storm, hitting Panama City and Mexico Beach particularly hard. By the time the winds died down, 21 people in the Bay County area, where Panama City is located, were dead.

Panama City — a town of about 37,000 — was already underwater, so to speak: About 22 percent of people there live below the poverty line, according to Census data. Of the county’s residents, about 13.5 percent live in mobile homes, many of which were wrecked in the 155 mph winds. It's not clear how those people will get back on their feet, even with assistance from the government, when there aren’t a lot of cheap apartments left to rent.

So even as the lights come back on in the Gulf Coast county, its poorest residents aren’t sure whether they’ll still have lives left to lead there. The hurricane has stressed the area’s poverty line even further, trapping low-income people in situations where they’re without jobs, without rental units or affordable hotel rooms, and without adequate money to repair their homes.

Meanwhile, in the wealthier Panama City Beach, members of the county’s board of tourism and development are attempting to move on, emphasizing that nicer parts of the beach are already up and running again. “We need to show FEMA people checking out of the hotels, and people with beach things checking in,” said board member Buddy Wilkes, promoting an $8.1 million advertising campaign for the city, the Panama City News Herald reported.

But FEMA isn't leaving anytime soon. The agency is set to start delivering temporary trailers to the county this weekend, according to Bay County Emergency Operations. In all, the government agency estimates 2,500 trailers will be staged at an airport in Marianna in Jackson County, and won’t cost residents anything to rent if they get approved.

FEMA could not confirm that number but did say they’re working on getting trailers to the area. About 54,358 families have registered with FEMA so far, according to spokesman Ruben L.C. Brown, and nearly 1,000 still need some sort of housing support. The county reports that 240 people are still in shelters, and Brown said that as of Wednesday, 3,274 homeowners and 8,646 renters had received about $24.5 million in rental assistance.

“The storm may have damaged existing stock, and there may have been a low inventory of housing stock to begin with,” Brown said. “We are acutely aware of the housing needs in the area.”

The Panama City Housing Authority said that two of its public housing complexes were destroyed, displacing 200 low-income people.

“We’re having to relocate them to other cities, other states,” said Ashley Bus, a leasing agent with the housing authority. “Some of them want to stay here.”

Greg Brudnicki, the mayor of Panama City, noted that some people aren’t eligible for FEMA assistance, either, and that he’s heard of people having to appeal their rejected applications for assistance through a sometimes burdensome process. Still, he thinks all agencies involved are doing their best to recover.

“I think that everyone has been as helpful as we’ve asked them to be," Brudnicki said, adding he believes the government’s response has been adequate. He was unsure how many people were still homeless, but said he believes the city’s tent cities are only housing the emergency aid workers swarming the city.

Aletha Lee, 25, said she was only given $1,700 in government aid after the hurricane for herself, her husband, and their seven children. She’s since relocated to Franklin County along the Gulf Coast, where her mother lives. She was told by FEMA that she can’t move back into her destroyed Panama City mobile home, which she was renting. Now, she’s thinking of moving to South Carolina.

“We were able to buy their clothes all over again, school supplies so they could go back to school, and that was really just about it,” Lee said of how she stretched the FEMA assistance. She works online in marketing, and her husband is an Army veteran and warehouse worker. “People just need to know that we’re not going to be OK, we’re not OK.”

Cheyenne Rimmer, 21, had to flee her since-condemned Panama City apartment building with her fiancé. “They kicked every resident out, they gave us a letter saying we had seven days to vacate the property,” Rimmer said.

And since she was working at the front desk of a beachfront resort that sustained serious damage, she's unemployed now too. Fortunately, her renters insurance covered some relocation costs, and she got her security deposit back. She’s staying in Santa Rosa Beach with her fiance and a friend, and received $1,700 from FEMA and some disaster-based food stamps, she said. But she’s had trouble finding businesses that will take her EBT card in the ritzier parts of town.

“People may think that a $1,000 here and there is a lot of money. It’s nothing,” Rimmer said.

Cover image: PANAMA CITY, FL - OCTOBER 20: A car drives past trees broken by Hurricane Michael on October 20, 2018 in Panama City, Florida. Much of Panama City remains without electricity or running water since Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10, as a category 4 storm, causing massive damage and claiming around 30 lives. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)