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‘We’re not going back to normal.’ They rode out Hurricane Michael, but were left without homes.

Basic necessities like food and water have been restored since the October afternoon when the storm pummeled Panama City. But a new crisis has emerged over a need even more primal — housing.
When Hurricane Michael tore through Panama City on Oct. 10, it drove out the residents of Massalina Memorial Homes. The public housing complex is on the city’s hard-hit east side. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
When Hurricane Michael tore through Panama City on Oct. 10, it drove out the residents of Massalina Memorial Homes. The public housing complex is on the city’s hard-hit east side. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published Dec. 27, 2018
Updated Dec. 27, 2018

PANAMA CITY — Nine-year-old Nakyah Williams cracked open the door to her bedroom.

"I don't like to look in there," she said. "It makes me sad."

Nakyah was in her apartment when Hurricane Michael blew through with a rare, terrifying ferocity. She heard the boom of her ceiling caving in, felt it shake the whole house.

Two months later, earlier this month, her family of four was spending their nights at the home of a friend of a friend and their days in their apartment at Massalina Memorial Homes, a public housing complex on the city's hard-hit east side.

There were few other options as they waited on housing to become available. They passed their time on the bare bottom floor of their apartment, beneath storm-battered bedrooms, the stairs a reminder of an ordeal none of them wanted to remember.

Basic necessities have been restored since the October afternoon when the storm pummeled this coastal Panhandle town. The power is back on, some grocery stores and restaurants have reopened, and bottled water seems in infinite supply.

But a new crisis has emerged over a need even more primal. Shelter is in short supply with the mass destruction of buildings in Bay County, a problem made worse by out-of-town relief workers taking up precious hotel space.

Just 1 in 10 of Panama City's homes and businesses scraped by unscathed. The rest were damaged or destroyed, local officials said. The county property appraiser put the damage total at $1.3 billion and counting.

Everyone in Massalina Memorial Homes was asked to leave the storm-damaged public housing complex, but after three weeks at a hotel, Latoya Jackson returned with her two children. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

Manufactured housing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency has trickled into the area for roughly 1,100 Bay County residents who are eligible.

As of mid December, the agency had given out about $28 million in housing repair grants, approved about 14,000 homeowners and renters for rental assistance, and had about 600 families staying in hotels.

But things are not moving at the pace local residents and officials were hoping for. Many people feel forgotten watching the country move on without them, as if life were back to normal.

But how could that be when displaced families are living in a tent city? When people are forced to take shelter in campers, parked in the driveways of homes without roofs? When stragglers stick by their all-but-leveled apartment complex because there is simply nowhere else to go?

"The struggle is not over," said Latoya Jackson, another Massalina resident. "I see on the TV they say we're going back to normal. We're not going back to normal."

• • •

The definition of normal here has warped like the wood floors in a roofless house.

People get lost driving around because landmarks were wiped out. They spray-paint their address on a piece of plywood and lean it against the garage door. They eat dinner in a McDonald's surrounded by construction workers chowing down on quarter-pounders.

For Jackson, the old normal ended the morning of Oct. 10.

She made some coffee and sat down to watch the news. She knew the storm was on the way, but it had gotten ferocious quickly, and she couldn't afford to leave, anyway.

If you didn't evacuate, now's the time to hunker down, she remembers the news anchor saying.

Then the power went out.

She took her boys — 9-month-old Benny Jackson and 11-year-old Adam Sessions — and hunkered down upstairs. She could see the rain outside, pouring, driven sideways by the wind, never seeming to hit the ground.

Latoya Jackson and her son Benny rode out Hurricane Michael in their apartment at the Massalina Memorial Homes public housing complex. Jackson and her two children took shelter in a closet. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

They heard a boom, and a window blew out. In a tiny closet downstairs, she put herself between her sons and the door.

Afterward, officials from the Panama City Housing Authority determined her complex was no longer safe. They asked residents to leave.

Jackson took her boys to a hotel on the beach for three weeks. Not knowing what to do next, she returned to Massalina, nearly abandoned, and found her apartment damaged but still liveable.

"I'm not going anywhere else until I can find a place to make my kids feel like home again," she said.

The storm took out 200 of the Housing Authority's units — 140 at Massalina and 60 at another location, said Teri Henry, executive director.

Along with assistance from FEMA, residents have access to housing vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But the odds of using them some place local are minute.

"It's bad," Henry said. "There's not anything in Bay County."

People have gone to Pensacola, Fort Myers, Dothan, Ala. But not everyone has the means to relocate, said Nicole Dash, an associate professor in emergency management and disaster science at the University of North Texas.

Disasters hurt the poorest people most, especially renters, Dash said. In the best of times, affordable housing is hard to come by; the local housing authority's waiting list stretched well beyond a year. After a storm, renters have little control over their recovery because they don't own the property, she said.

Hurricane Michael left debris along 11th Court and throughout Panama City. Just 1 in 10 of the Panhandle community’s homes and businesses were left unscathed. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

In Bay County, that took on special importance. About 70 percent of the people who qualified for FEMA trailers were renters and the rest were homeowners, the opposite of what's typical after a storm.

Dash pointed to past research on Hurricane Andrew as an indicator of what may be next. The 1992 storm slammed into Miami-Dade County, including a farming community south of Homestead named Florida City.

"The poor got poorer in the aftermath," Dash said.

Job loss, closed schools and the difficulty of navigating the government-aid bureaucracy swirl into their own hurricane for people already struggling before the storm.

Schools are back in session in Bay County, and Jackson recently sent Benny back to daycare when space opened up, allowing her to return to her job as a cook at Cracker Barrel.

She plans to use her housing vouchers to move into an apartment she found on Facebook, but it won't be open until February.

Until then, it's a waiting game in the sagging apartment complex.

"The storm devastated things, but I was barely making my way before," she said, "so it's not that different."

• • •

The red Hyundai Accent was parked next to a tarp-covered tent, and Jessie Wolf had slept in them both.

Desperation landed her here, but it wasn't so bad. At 72, with wispy white-blond hair and soft wrinkles, she wasn't like most of the others living in the tent city that had formed behind Forest Park United Methodist Church. Her neighbors were already calling her "mom."

"Even at this age," she said, "I surprise myself."

Jim Reno, an unofficial camp leader, walks through a tent city that sprang up after Hurricane Michael hit Panama City. Those sleeping in the tents at Forest Park United Methodist Church included out-of-town workers and local residents with nowhere else to go. The tents are now gone. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

The encampment had started weeks before with a few tents for workers fixing storm damage at the church, but it had grown to about 200 people. It was the face of the post-storm housing crunch.

Many people were transient or in town from elsewhere, hoping to capitalize on the work to be done. Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki put the number of local families at eight.

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One of those was Wolf, who had been living in Panama City's St. Andrews Towers, a 14-story apartment building for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. The extensive damage inside made it unsafe, a manager said.

Wolf packed what she could and hunted for a storage unit, also in short supply. She found one 40 miles away. Then came the search for where she would stay. Her son's recent death from brain cancer left her the last one in her family.

First, she stayed with friends in Wewahitchka, then at a motel on the beach for the luxuries of hot soup and a shower, but management was charging peak summer rates. She slept in her Hyundai subcompact for close to a month. But that was bad for her back, so she came to the tent city.

She had already spent a chunk of the $1,700 she got from FEMA. But even if she still had it all, finding a place to live was impossible. She spent her days in the Hyundai, driving through the city and beyond looking for a place.

Meanwhile, a deadline loomed. The tent city was shutting down Dec. 10. Everyone had to go.

"I want to take care of all the temporarily displaced people of Bay County and Panama City," Mayor Brudnicki said. "I cannot take care of the chronic homeless that come here from other cities."

The Methodist church and the city helped relocate those families who were local.

A woman who visited the dwindling cluster of tents offered Wolf a spare room in her apartment on the beach.

Wolf took her up on it. After that, who's to say? She's hoping to scrape together enough money to buy a house in the cheaper post-storm market.
Still, she's hanging on to her tent.

"You never know."

• • •

From the sky, it's easy to spot the lumpy blue clusters of tents and the patched red roofs of Massalina. It's harder to see the makeshift homes that seem to line every few driveways across the city and surrounding suburbs.

In this new normal for a standard of living, campers and recreational vehicles had become something of a luxury.

One chilly morning, 2-year-old Anna Elliott came running out of an RV in a diaper. Her mother, Doris Elliott, scooped her up and put her in their black Chevy Trailblazer, heated by the Florida sunshine.

Their home, a rental, loomed in the background.

The roof was gone, blown into the backyard with chunks of shingles visible through French doors. The big family dinner table Elliott had wanted for so long, warped. Anna's baby book sat on the kitchen counter, ruined. Her mother had found it while digging through the rubble and broke into sobs.

Cole Elliott installed an electrical hookup so he and his family could live in a recreational vehicle after their rental home in Panama City was destroyed in Hurricane Michael. The RV is parked in the driveway of the home and the Elliotts were looking for a permanent place to live. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

Little Anna doesn't understand why they can't go back inside. Her father, Cole, fixes appliances for a living. Why can't he fix the house?

"Daddy can't fix this one," they tell her.

They've gotten some FEMA assistance, but it's hard to keep up when both parents work full time — Doris as a nursing assistant overnight at a local hospital.

Campers were too expensive in the Panhandle, so her in-laws found one in Alabama. Cole Elliott set up a makeshift power pole. Doris Elliott, 28, put up a clothesline that dried their garments stiff in a way that reminded her of her grandma's house. They put heated blankets in a dog house for Bubs, their labrador-border collie mix.

The landlord has to demolish the house, and finding a permanent spot to park the camper hasn't been easy.

Land is at a premium. City and county officials have been in a frenzy trying to clear areas of debris to make way for FEMA trailers. Some have grown frustrated by the federal government's sluggish pace.

"It almost feels deliberate that they delay delay delay so that that person will find their own way," said Bay County Commissioner Philip "Griff" Griffitts.

A FEMA spokeswoman said the agency is working with local governments to clear debris on potential sites. The agency has delivered 225 units to Bay County as of this week.

"For everyone who is looking for housing, this is a challenging process," said FEMA spokeswoman Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, "but we're working through it as quickly as we can."

Still, the trailers are a short-term solution, said Craig Fugate, Florida's emergency management director during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons and later the head of FEMA.

Craig Fugate, former emergency management chief for Florida and the federal government, said helping the victims of Hurricane Michael is an immediate challenge for Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis. [AP (2009)]

For insured homeowners, rebuilding is a likely prospect. But for renters, particularly the poorest among them, officials at the local, state and federal level should already be planning for the long haul, Fugate said.

He put emphasis on the governor's office as it faces a transition from two-term Gov. Rick Scott to incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"It's critical during a time of transition between governments that these issues be on the front burner of the transition team," Fugate said. "This is going to be a challenge they face upon walking in the door."

Asked how the transition team is addressing the housing crisis, a campaign spokesman said in a statement that DeSantis has traveled to Panama City a number of times since the storm.

"The incoming administration is focused on working with federal, state and local authorities," the campaign said, "to garner the resources necessary for a full recovery of the Panhandle."

• • •

On cars and restaurant signs, you'll see messages of resiliency — "850 Strong."

Panama City's weary eyes are looking ahead.

The Housing Authority plans to rebuild Massalina and offer the units back to former residents. The city pledged to loan the housing authority $354,000, a show of support that should increase the chances of landing competitive funding from the state.

City officials also cleared the way to buy a subdivision with 27 lots to develop affordable, 1,100-square foot homes, Mayor Brudnicki said.

"We want to make sure that when these people come out of these trailers in 18 months that there's places for them to move into," he said.

The state's Department of Economic Opportunity is poised to handle long-term recovery dollars from the federal government. Last year, HUD allocated about $1.4 billion to Florida for Hurricane Irma recovery that will be distributed to affected communities through a program called Rebuild Florida, said Tiffany Vause, director of communications and external affairs. The amount for Michael hasn't been set yet.

Nakyah Williams, 9, and her little brother, D’Mondre Mimms, 4, play with their cat Tiger at Massalina Memorial Homes. Nakyah heard the boom of her ceiling caving in when Hurricane Michael tore through Panama City. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

Back at Massalina, things were starting to look up for Nakyah's family. Her mom, Rebecca Turner, had found a place she could pay for with housing vouchers.

"I can kind of think ahead a little bit now," said Turner, 32.

In the musty cold upstairs at her apartment, Nakyah braved a dash into her mom's room to grab her brother's fifth-grade graduation tassel, a memento pulled from a mess of insulation.

She shut the door and headed downstairs.