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A small village of the forgotten has popped up in Diahnn “Shelly” Summers’ backyard outside Panama City. Where there once was empty grass abutting almost 5 acres (2 hectares) of woods, 10 tents now encircle a fir tree with Christmas lights.
The tents shelter those still homeless more than four months after Hurricane Michael screamed ashore with 155-mph (250-kph) winds, flattening, blowing away or rendering uninhabitable thousands of houses.
“There is nowhere for them to go,” Summers said. “When you don’t have a home, you have no sense of safety, no sense of belonging, no security. You don’t even know where you’re going to sleep without getting into trouble. It’s the worst feeling.”
Of all the Florida Panhandle areas affected by Michael, Bay County was hardest hit: Officials said almost three-quarters of its 68,000 households were affected. Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense, who is leading a hurricane recovery initiative, estimated about 20,000 people were homeless in the weeks after the October storm.
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Some have been able to make their homes livable again with cosmetic repairs. Others left town: The county’s student population is down 14 percent. And 7,800 residents are still considered homeless, county officials said.
Many unable to move in with relatives or find a coveted hotel room with the help of federal vouchers have turned to living in tents.
Several obstacles prevent their return to normalcy. Trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been slow to arrive, and it’s hard to find an apartment where the rent hasn’t been jacked up in a suddenly tight market. Almost three-quarters of the damaged properties were rental units, which are difficult to replace with temporary shelter, Bay County Manager Robert Majka said.
“If you have 100 units in an apartment complex, you can’t put 100 FEMA trailers into that apartment complex and accommodate these folks,” he said.
Sue Laurel Shaw was able to stay in her apartment after the storm and said her landlord even agreed to deduct the cost of repairs she made from the rent. But now she faces eviction for back rent after she says the landlord reneged on their agreement.
She is looking for another place to live, but “everything is tripling,” said Shaw, who was fighting to stay in her Panama City apartment.
Mystie Gregory said she, her fiance and 2-year-old daughter left their apartment for several days to take a break from living without electricity. When they returned, she said, it had been rented to another family.
Gregory found refuge with more than a dozen others living in tents behind Summers’ ranch-style house.
Gregory said she is trying to “make the most” of living in a tent, but “it makes you feel like a failure as a parent, even though it’s out of your control.”
Among the county’s homeless are 4,700 students, said Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt. Some schools lost more than 40 percent of their students and the school board is closing at least three schools for now.
“It’s all about housing,” Husfelt said. “Everything we’re dealing with, it’s about housing.”
In December, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio wrote a letter chastising FEMA for not finding enough sites for trailers or mobile homes. Rubio said families “have not seen an appropriate response to their housing needs and FEMA must immediately act to address this concern.”
At the time, more than 1,200 Bay County families were waiting for trailers or mobile homes. By the end of February, that number had fallen to more than 200, partially because more than 500 families had found other options on their own, county officials said.
“The velocity of FEMA’s temporary housing improved after the first of the year, although trailers … never came in consistently at stated goals,” said Joel Schubert, Bay County’s assistant manager.
FEMA officials said the large numbers of renters and the enormous amount of debris that needed to be cleared before trailers could be installed slowed the process.
In addition, 26,000 Florida households received grants for home repairs, 21,000 residents received temporary rental assistance and 2,000 households were approved for hotel rooms or short-term condo rentals, FEMA spokesman Samuel “Carr” McKay said in a statement.
Even that help took a while to reach some residents. Dennis Myrick, who has no home insurance, said he lived in a tent in the front yard of his decimated Panama City home until mid-January, when he was finally able to get a FEMA hotel voucher.
“It’s pure hell, man,” Myrick said. “The wind blows, and you get wet. I had to hold the tent down with my hands. It was about to blow away.”
Before she landed in Summers’ backyard, Jacinta Wheeler, whose apartment was damaged by the hurricane, joined other residents in an encampment dubbed “Tent City” in a different part of town. Officials forced them to leave over safety and hygiene concerns. Lori and Gene Hogan had settled in a tent on the beach after Michael destroyed their home, but police officers threatened to arrest them if they didn’t move, so they came here as well.
Wheeler has been working construction jobs and helping repair neighbors’ properties while she stays in her tent.
“Everybody wants the American dream,” the Trinidad native said. “If this is the dream, I don’t want it.”
Summers and her husband, Sam, want to build more permanent housing on the property for their guests but said they have run into regulatory roadblocks. In the meantime, they try to make them feel at home, inviting them to their dinner table and leaving the Christmas lights on the backyard tree to retain some cheer.
Summers said she has always welcomed people in need to her home.
“They need help and we were blessed enough that our house was untouched,” she said. “We seem to be the outcasts by trying to help people and it shouldn’t be that way. This should be a normal thing.”