- Associated Press - Sunday, October 13, 2019

PANAMA CITY, Fla. (AP) - It has been a year since Hurricane Michael roared across the eastern Florida Panhandle, a Category 5 storm that laid waste to the coastline and ravaged areas far inland.

Yet in rural Bay County, amid forests of snapped trees and the more-than-occasional home still roofed with a blue tarp, Shelly Summers is continuing to help people who haven’t yet found permanent housing.

A half-dozen people remain on Summers’ property off Campflowers Road, which she and her husband, Sam, opened up to people with no other options in the wake of the storm. Both of the couple have jobs, and use part of that income to provide their guests with food, while a local business, Carter Pecans, covers utility costs for the impromptu campground.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, Summers and her daughter went quickly to a tent city that sprang up in Panama City, inviting people to the safer rural confines of her backyard, living under three simple rules: “no drinking, no drugs, no drama.” Summers estimates the property has accommodated 100 people, in tents, temporary vinyl shelters and other structures, including a shower area and portable toilets, since Hurricane Michael. At one point, Summers said, there were 37 people living in her backyard.

The few who remain today, Summers said, are welcome to stay as long as they want, with ongoing help from her and her husband.



“We’re minimalist people,” she said. “Things aren’t as important to us as people are.”

And, she added, if the arrangements in her backyard should attract the attention of county code enforcement officials as Hurricane Michael fades into memory, she has a plan for that.

“If I have to move them into the house, I will,” she said.

One of the people staying at the Summers’ campground is 57-year-old Reessie - she wouldn’t give her last name - who was homeless when the hurricane struck, living out of her truck. She was able to ride out the hurricane with family in Cottondale, but eventually had to return to living out of her truck, relying on the help of other people.

“It was hard,” she said. “It was winter. It was cold, and you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to eat, where you’re going to stay. But I made it.”

Reessie doesn’t exactly remember how long she has been staying at the Summers’ property, but her home now is a pop-up vinyl shelter, just tall enough to stand up in, with a bed in one corner and a small air-conditioner across the room.

“I’m thankful to have a place to lay my head,” she said. “Shelly and Sam have blessed us to have that.”

Reessie has applied for some government assistance for a disability she didn’t discuss, but her future nonetheless remains clouded by the fact that residential rental prices have soared in the wake of the hurricane.

“Right now, everything in town is double the price that it was,” she said. “So if you’re looking for a $700 rent, it would be $1,400 or more. And that doesn’t include your lights, your phone, nothing - that’s just rent… . Nobody has $1,400.”

- FEMA becomes an option

Frustration with rising rental prices, even for mobile home lots, is a common theme among those who remain without permanent housing a year after Hurricane Michael.

In the FEMA Group Site off 15th Street in Panama City, where a few dozen trailers of various sizes line the streets along the midway of the Bay County Fairgrounds, 36-year-old Joshalyn Bailey was using the moderating temperatures of a recent late afternoon to tend to the plants she has arrayed outside one of the two trailers where she and her 16-year-old daughter, Alyssa, and 13-year-old son, R.J., have been living.

The plants were among the few things that Bailey was able to save from the ravages of Hurricane Michael.

“I love my plants,” she said. “They’re my babies. I brought most of them with me because I put a lot of time into them.”

Bailey counts it as something of a miracle of divine intervention that her family even survived Hurricane Michael. The trailer where they had been living, in a park near the fairgrounds, was destroyed by the storm, but before it hit, she and her children made their way to her mother-in-law’s stucco-and-block house in the shadow of Bay High School to ride out the storm.

“All the houses around us were missing their roofs,” she said. “But my mother-in-law - she’s an evangelistic minister - her house was the only one not missing a roof. It shocked us.”

As Bailey and her family move forward from the storm, it appears she might need another miracle to get into permanent housing. Ten years ago, she was sentenced to five years of probation for a burglary charge, and that has hampered her efforts to move into rental housing - efforts she began in the immediate aftermath of the storm.

“You’ve got people looking for places, and there’s this person with a good background, and me with a 10-year-old burglary charge, nobody wants to rent to me,” she said. “I was just young and stupid, but they don’t want to take the time to talk to you or get to know you. It’s just what it is.”

The burglary conviction, for which she recently finished paying restitution, wasn’t an issue for FEMA, Bailey said, and she was able to move into the group site at the fairgrounds.

“It has been rough,” she said, “but I’m grateful that FEMA has been here. A lot of people are like, ‘They’re not helping, they don’t do this or that or a third thing.’ But they’ve been here, and they’ve helped me.”

Still, Bailey said, she’s facing a Dec. 31 FEMA deadline - recently moved back from what had been an Oct. 31 deadline - to find alternate housing, which could include buying the trailers from FEMA.

“I’ve signed the paper to buy it,” she said, noting that with her problematic background, it may be the only option open to her.

“I’m just waiting on the other paperwork telling me how much it is,” Bailey said. Word is, according to Bailey, that FEMA will offer good deals on the trailers, and that there also are programs to help people pay for them.

In the meantime, she’s looking at a lot at a local mobile home park where the monthly rent is $350, a bargain compared to the $600 monthly lot rent elsewhere.

“Yes, it is high,” she said, “but it’s like $1,000 less than other rent.”

Still, she’s not entirely sold on turning the FEMA trailers into a longer-term housing option.

“It’s the propane,” she said. “It scares me, because if something springs a leak you’re going to blow up.”

- Things can work out

At the opposite end of the FEMA Group Site on 15th Street, 60-year-old Greg Smith stood outside the large trailer he’s sharing with his daughter and three grandchildren.

Smith rode out the hurricane in his former home on Springfield Avenue with his second wife - he’s had four wives, and remains friends with No. 2 - who needed a place to stay as Michael bore down on Panama City. As they waited nervously, they heard the roof clattering atop the house, and then watched it rip away, landing on his truck.

“I don’t get scared a lot,” he said. “I was in the Navy, and I’ve been driving 18-wheelers for years, but that scared me.”

Cataloging what he lost in the storm, it didn’t take Smith long to lament the loss of some vintage copies of a certain periodical. “I had two stacks of Playboys, this high,” Smith said, gesturing near his waist. “Starting from the 1960s, when they had all the movie stars in them - Marilyn Monroe, I had them all. It was bad, I’m telling you.”

On a more serious note, Smith said he was one of the first people in line to apply for a FEMA trailer, and “one of the last ones to get one.” He chose to wait for the larger trailer, and lived in his garage, which still had its roof, while he waited. He and his extended family now have been in the trailer for five months.

“I had a daughter, and three grandbabies, and they (FEMA) moved fast as a snail,” a perturbed Smith joked.

In the interim, though, Smith was able to get a $17,500 Small Business Administration loan to help cover the cost of a truck and trailer to get his screened-room installation business re-established.

Digging out from the storm, Smith also has been able to pick up other work, and he is having a double-wide manufactured home installed on some land he has ready in Bayou George. He does, though, have plans to harden it against hurricanes.

“I’m going to build a pole barn around it,” he said, “and then I’m going to put a porch all the way around it. By the time I’m through with that trailer, it’ll be a lot better than these around here.”

___

Information from: The (Panama City, Fla.) News Herald, http://www.newsherald.com

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