Twenty-one percent of Panama City residents live below the poverty line. Many rely on federal housing subsidies to help with rent, but funding for affordable housing programs is limited. Hurricane Michael exacerbated the housing shortage. After the storm, displaced hurricane survivors with little resources were left navigating federal aid options, searching for scarce homes all while trying to find a sense of normalcy.
Photos by Sheri Fountain. Additional reporting and Spanish language translation by Gastòn Yvorra and Mayra Aviles.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Jim Homstad’s last name. It has been corrected. In addition, a new quote has been added from Homstad for clarification on the scheduled end date of FEMA’s housing assistance.
A few weeks after Hurricane Michael struck Sheri Fountain’s Panama City home, she and her family were given a week to gather their belongings and leave Andrews Place Apartments.
Fountain was 37 weeks pregnant.
Andrews Place Apartments is an income restricted property, which means residents like Fountain receive a federal subsidy to live there at a reduced rent. One of the most common federal subsidies is a housing choice voucher known as Section 8. To qualify for a unit at Andrews Place, households of two must earn no more than $27,000. Fountain’s pay at Marshall’s retail store kept her under the threshold.
For Fountain and other displaced survivors who rely on federal rent subsidies, finding an affordable place to rent was hard. It always has been.
The Panama City Housing Authority provides 450 public housing units, 416 housing choice vouchers and 60 Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers for those who qualify for assistance.
Roughly 7,750, or 21%, of Panama City’s 36,900 residents live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
If you estimate that a family of four resides in each of the available subsidized housing units, only 3,400 would get slots. The others would either be stuck on waiting lists, homeless or paying rent as high as 50% of their household income.
Michael completely ripped through two public housing complexes in Panama City, Massalina and Fletcher Black homes, deeming them uninhabitable.
But, even still, the affordable housing shortage existed before Michael’s wrath.
Michael flushed Fountain’s apartment with water. Mold ravaged her belongings. With her renter’s insurance, she was able to replace some things before the baby came.
Fountain gave birth to her daughter Aurora on November 1, and brought her home to the 32-foot camper parked in her boyfriend’s parent’s backyard three days later. They’ve been living there since the storm.
It’s not exactly how Fountain imagined bringing up a newborn. It’s cramped. And hot.
“It’s like a car. It heats up really quickly.”
When her lease was terminated, Fountain was told that her family would be able to move back in within 3-8 months. June 2019 marks that deadline. She’s hasn’t received any information about a potential move-in date.
“I’m hoping by the time school starts again, we will be able to move back,” she said.
“I’ll cry if I have to come back to this camper.”
“Disasters start local and end local”
Kathya Adorno, a Puerto Rican transplant and mother of two, left to Sarasota with her family before the storm. She said Macedonia Garden Apartments, also an income-restricted property, wasn’t a safe place to ride it out.
Her father stayed behind to watch over the apartment. He physically held the front door closed for four hours as Michael made landfall. She stayed on the phone with him until the signal disappeared.
A few days after the hurricane, Macedonia’s management served Adorno and other residents notices to vacate the premises within 72 hours.
For residents who had questions, there was no point of contact. The apartment office was closed.
“We had no support from Macedonia at any point,” Adorno told The Marjorie through a translator. “The only support we had was that of us as neighbors, as a community.”
The Bay County’s Sheriff’s Office got word of the notices and told residents to stay calm. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency still needed to conduct inspections and determine housing voucher eligibility.
With a tarp over her roof, a generator and enough canned food and water, Adorno and her family made do in the humid, moldy apartment for about a week before FEMA representatives showed up. They gave her a check for $2,500. Adorno started searching for apartments within her budget.
“But it was hard because everyone was doing the same, looking where to live,” Adorno said. “We don’t have a lot of options. Almost everything was destroyed.”
Adorno found a two-bedroom apartment in Panama City Beach for $1,150 a month. She is currently enrolled in FEMA’s Individual and Households program. The program helps her pay a little more than half her rent, for now.
“My children have a secure roof over their heads,” she said. “In that sense they [FEMA] have helped me a lot.”
Since she’s receiving rental help from FEMA, she lost her food stamps.
She hasn’t heard anything about whether her old apartment will be rebuilt.
“The last we knew is that they’d demolish and the people who were living there would be the people they’d call after reconstructing,” she said. “But we haven’t gotten a call. They haven’t told us anything.”
The Marjorie tried to contact Macedonia Garden Apartments multiple times, but the publicly listed number was disconnected. Calls to the property management and owners were also not returned.
Adorno said a lot of people she knew in Macedonia Garden Apartments were forced to leave Panama City altogether.
When disaster survivors are displaced from their homes, FEMA has three programs to assist with finding temporary housing — the individuals and households program, the transitional sheltering assistance program and the direct housing assistance program.
Program eligibility depends on an individual’s income, whether or not they were insured and a variety of other factors. Jim Homstad, media relations manager with FEMA, said each of these programs is meant to be temporary. The programs are not meant to provide long-term remedies.
“By law, FEMA may provide direct temporary housing assistance for 18 months from the date of a disaster declaration,” Homstad said. “Accordingly, the current program in the Florida Panhandle is scheduled to end on April 11, 2020.”
From there, those still displaced will be referred to other agencies, like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Disasters start local and end local,” Homstad said. “FEMA cannot make you whole, but it can help fill in the gaps. It takes a community approach.”
Milk, bread and Yoohoo
At one point after Hurricane Michael, 65-year-old retired veteran Steven Wallace thought he might have to resort to sleeping in his car. Wallace also relied on a federal rent subsidy. His was called the Veteran’s Affairs Supportive Housing voucher.
Wallace spent 36 days in a shelter before receiving FEMA assistance. More than a month without coffee. Or a clean bathroom. Or the ability to smoke a cigarette on his own terms.
Wallace remembers the past 8 months in vivid detail.
The Tuesday before the storm, he went to the store to buy milk, bread and Yoohoo —the necessities. Last he heard, Michael was just a tropical storm. Then again, it was college football season and he wasn’t paying much attention to the news.
When he got to the grocery store, people were snatching water bottles by the case.
The storm had rapidly morphed into a Category 4.
He thought about leaving town, but didn’t really have a choice. His tank was on E. By now, frantic Floridians had pumped the stations dry.
He packed some clothes, books and a sleeping bag and checked into the shelter at Northside Elementary School. It was sturdy.
There were no cots. Roughly 400 people were hunkered on the hallway’s tile floor.
Wallace said it was like, “they didn’t plan on nothing.”
Red Cross workers served everyone a “blob of spaghetti,” Wallace recalls that first night.
“We were constantly in a mystery. We had no TV, no news, no nothing,” he said. “If I hadn’t been a person with a good personality I would’ve ripped out what hair I had left in my head.”
Four days after the storm, the shelter workers lined up cots in the gymnasium. Wallace’s 65-year-old body was grateful.
Ten days later, FEMA representatives showed up to start the claims process.
When Wallace’s number was called, the representative requested his phone number. He explained his landline was destroyed with his home. He didn’t have a cell phone.
Wallace returned to FEMA after getting a free cell phone, courtesy of T-Mobile. They told him to sit tight. They’d call.
Wallace waited for three days before FEMA sent him a text message saying they were unable to contact him. They had been calling his defunct landline.
“There’s the government at work for you,” Wallace smirked.
After FEMA surveyed the damage, they valued Wallace’s personal property at $973. Wallace had lived in his home for 11 years. He believed it was worth more, but had no proof. His receipts were moldy and stuck together.
Wallace qualified for the FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance Program and was given an additional $1700 for rent and a security deposit on a new place, once he found one.
In the meantime, he was given a hotel voucher and a $125 debit card. Wallace made his way to a hotel nearly two hours away in Fort Walton Beach. Every 10 days or so, he and the other displaced survivors would have to fill another FEMA claim to stay while they searched for a more permanent solution.
On April 1st, FEMA notified everyone that the TSA program was ending. Those who were still living in a hotel had to leave by April 9. They would need to find a permanent residence.
They were on their own.
“$1,700 won’t get too far in a hotel,” Wallace said. “I thought I might have to sleep in my car.”
Five days before FEMA cut the cord, Wallace’s housing representative at the V.A. found him a small cottage at the end of a quiet street. It has a patio where he can smoke a cigarette on his own terms.
Disasters aren’t natural
For someone who has just suffered an acute disaster, navigating through displacement, insurance claims and finding out what kind of assistance you qualify for can be confusing.
For those in marginalized communities, it can lead to simply giving up and going without.
Aaron Clark-Ginsburg, a disaster researcher and social scientist who studies community-based disaster risk reduction practices, said one of the main factors that can exacerbate the severity of a disaster is the lack of understanding of a population’s culture.
That’s why organizations like Mutual Aid Disaster Relief are working to “cut out the middleman.”
To remove what Dezerae Lyn, a street medic with MADRelief, calls “bureaucratic bottlenecks,” that often serve as a secondary trauma after an acute disaster like a major hurricane.
“Instead, we want to rip pathways open so that people can get what they need as quickly as possible,” Lyn said.
Ginsburg said that in order to better prepare for disasters in the future, it’s important to look at the definition of the word disaster.
“A disaster is not just a hazard striking an area. It’s not just a hurricane that’s a disaster. A disaster is a disaster when it disrupts people,” Clark-Ginsburg said.
More often than not, those people that are most affected are on the margins — that have no money in their savings account or live in an area that’s more exposed to hazards in general.
“There is pretty clear evidence that disasters widen the gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots,” Clark-Gingsburg said.
One of the challenges in mitigating disasters like a hurricane is getting money shelled out for something that’s not occurring. Clark-Ginsburg said getting response funds after the fact is much easier politically.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition has recommendations for Congress, FEMA and HUD about how to make recovery from future hurricanes and other disasters more equitable. To protect society’s most vulnerable.
Clark-Ginsburg said that more research and funding should go toward preventing disasters by improving policy and exploring different solutions.
“We shouldn’t accept high numbers of deaths or high economic damage as inevitable when those things happen. That’s a social failure. That reflects something we as a society did and it’s an indictment on how we’ve structured our society.” Clark-Ginsburg said.
“That’s on us.”
Part II: The Forgotten Storm
Timber has sustained many Florida families for generations, and is a linchpin of rural Florida culture. The Florida Panhandle is home to some of the state’s most robust timberlands, but after Hurricane Michael leveled millions of acres of trees, many producers and workers were left to pick up the pieces and wonder if they are ready for this year’s hurricane season.
Part III: A Green Blur
Take a look outside. What do you see? For residents of the Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael, it was complete and utter devastation. Photos of leveled homes, smashed businesses, flooded streets and forests laid to waste made their way through news outlets, across social media, and in texts and emails to loved ones. But what was less obvious was how the destruction set the stage for a new landscape: a landscape defined by invasive species.