This story was produced through a partnership between Southerly and Climate Central, a non-advocacy group that researches and reports on the changing climate.
With his only possessions packed tightly into two plastic bags on the ground beside him, Will Wells raked unkempt grass growing out of the sand around his friend’s mobile home on a plot of land at the Bay County Fairgrounds.
Wells, a longtime Panama City resident, just turned 42, but the disabled veteran said he didn’t have much to celebrate. He’s been homeless for nearly two years — ever since Hurricane Michael, the strongest storm to ever hit the Panhandle, took everything. In between homeless shelters, Wells sometimes stays at his friend’s trailer at a Federal Emergency Management Agency-operated (FEMA) campground.
On Oct. 10, 2018, the Category 5 storm dropped a huge oak tree on Wells’ home, where he lived with his family. But he said that was just the beginning of his troubles. “Before the storm, I had a car, I had my bills paid,” he said. “Then within two weeks, everything was gone.”
The hurricane left 22,000 county residents homeless in the weeks following the storm and caused nearly $7 billion of total insured losses. The per capita impact of the storm totaled $3,650 per person — 27 times more than the impact of Hurricane Irma on south Florida. Since then, the federal government has disbursed $1.2 billion in aid to Bay County through a cobbled-together disaster relief system that includes federal funding paid to county agencies and nonprofits, as well as insurance payouts to residents and businesses.
Now, as local governments and residents prepare for more storms this hurricane season during a pandemic — which complicates and create new risks during evacuations — hundreds of people left homeless after the storm are still living in temporary trailers. Many are at the fairgrounds, the area’s largest remaining FEMA campground, which is surrounded by empty, damaged businesses and homes. Others are living in tents as they wait for funding or resources to rebuild. Thousands of people have moved away.
“They had all these commercials where they said ‘We’re here for you,’ ‘850-strong,’ ‘Panhandle-Strong,’ and then you call and nothing,” Wells said. “Nobody helps the people who really need it in this town.”
Mary Hays is another resident who still needs support. She lives at the campground with her miniature shih tzu, Lulu. The 70-year-old vividly remembers when Hurricane Michael hit her public housing apartment complex for the elderly. “Michael blew the roof right off! Oh my goodness,” she said. “And 14 stories of water came all the way down.” She moved to the FEMA trailer while the building was being reconstructed, and said she was told she could move back three months later. But the demand for construction turned that wait into more than two years. Hays will continue to live in her trailer until the beginning of September if all construction continues as planned.
There’s no guarantee that will happen, though: Nonprofit leaders, business owners, and residents say Bay County’s rebuilding efforts have slowed to a near stop as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the state. Long-term planning to protect people and businesses from storms has been put on the back burner as COVID-19 cases dramatically increase statewide. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reopened the state in early May, and the onus is now on county officials to simultaneously rebuild, preserve local economies, and keep residents and tourists safe.
Hays and her neighbors are worried, and trying to prepare for the chance of another devastating storm.
“Give us a break, Lord,” Hays said.
The overwhelming demand for construction reaches every corner of Bay County. An estimated 60,000 households — three-quarters of the area’s houses — were damaged in the storm. The city of Mexico Beach was about 80% destroyed.
Panhandle residents like Wells felt forgotten in the aftermath. That year saw an especially destructive hurricane season in the Southeast; Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina about a month before. It took nearly eight months for the federal government to approve a disaster relief bill for Hurricane Michael, compared to just days or weeks for other storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey.
Jesse Dasher, the pastor at Panama City’s First Baptist Church of Callaway, said members of his congregation are stuck living in trailers and RVs in their front yards. The church is still undergoing major repairs; it took 19 months to settle with the insurance company.
In the meantime, Dasher has been holding services in classrooms and a fellowship hall. “When the hurricane first happened I thought by the next year we’d be back into the sanctuary,” he said. “A year and a half later, and we haven’t even started construction yet…I’m thinking of changing the church’s name to ‘First Disaster Church of Callaway.’”
Almost 40% of Bay County’s population are renters, and many of their buildings were hit especially hard during the storm. Rents skyrocketed after that, leaving no option for affordable housing. Thousands of people left: Research from the University of Florida suggests the county’s population declined nearly 10% within six months of Hurricane Michael. Many of the rest are in FEMA trailers, camping out, or staying with friends and relatives.
The Panhandle isn’t alone in this struggle. Natural disaster recovery processes have been fraught with problems for decades. Research shows that post-disaster government assistance programs are often structured in ways that make it difficult for the most vulnerable groups to receive help. Renters, who tend to have significantly lower incomes than homeowners, are also disproportionately overlooked by government aid programs.
There are also racial disparities, since Black, Native American, and Latinx residents are more likely to be extremely low-income renters. In Bay County, more than 15% of people are estimated to be living below the poverty line, according to the 2018 Census. But a quarter of Black residents live in poverty — a much higher number than both white and Hispanic residents.
Federal disaster relief funding comes in several ways: loans and grants to individuals, to relief organizations, and to the county or state. But when it comes to grants, FEMA doesn’t pay for recovery costs upfront. Those bills are left to local governments, who must go through a series of steps with the federal agency to be reimbursed.
Valerie Sale, Bay County’s public information officer, said Hurricane Michael’s federal funding primarily goes toward paying back these types of loans. The county commission took out $250 million in loans after the storm, and still owes a little more than half of that. Bay County Manager Bob Maika said officials chose to take out loans in the interest of speed. “We spoke to both our federal and state partners about grants or low, no interest loans, and those sources were simply not available at that time,” he said.
Critics say FEMA took too long to help people after the storm. In February, FEMA approved a six-month extension for the 450 Panhandle families still living in government trailers to stay on through mid-October. More than half of those are in Bay County.
FEMA spokesperson Gary Mayshaunt said the agency worked closely with the state to “get survivors into safe, sanitary, functional temporary housing as quickly as possible.”
Mayshaunt said responsibility for recovery extends beyond his agency. “The whole community must tackle the challenge of affordable permanent housing for thousands of displaced survivors. The whole community includes local, state and federal partners, as well as nonprofits and the private sector.”
There are financial resources available to those who need it, said Project H.O.P.E’s Jessica Sabatino, who leads Bay County’s chapter of the disaster recovery group. The organization, along with others in the area, provided on-the-ground support for people applying for loans and grants, rebuilding homes, and also offered mental health resources.
But the program officially ended May 29 after running out of money. “Those schools wanted us to continue,” said Project H.O.P.E counselor Jamaica Thompkins. “The community wanted us to continue, but it was a federal plan.”
Without their help, fewer people are likely to access funds they need. The process to apply for federal loans or grants is tedious and time-consuming, and residents often don’t know how to find information or access the appropriate resources. “That’s so much paperwork,” Sabatino said. “And usually the residents just give up because they’re so frustrated and they don’t understand it.”
Wells, the homeless veteran, said that’s what happened to him. He said he was denied a FEMA grant or access to a mobile home after the storm. Without renters or storage insurance, he felt he had nowhere to turn. “See that store right over there?” Wells said, pointing in the direction of a grocery store near the FEMA campground.
“I tore open the door and we slept in there for two nights because we had nowhere to be,” said Wells, who no longer lives with his family. “Everybody has a sad story. I’m not the only one. There’s a lot of people like me around here.”
Hurricane Michael — and the economic distress it has caused — has helped spur conversations in Florida about how to address sea level rise and extreme weather. Three years ago, local officials in Bay County were reluctant to mention climate change or discuss long-term climate adaptation planning, but Allan Branch, a lifelong Panama City resident and local business owner, said his neighbors are now looking more seriously at how coastal infrastructure will hold up as sea levels rise.
“This is a very conservative, Republican, Bible Belt area,” Branch said. “And people are talking about climate change. Sea level rise. There’s more hurricanes now and you know, that kind of talk is more normal now. I think the awareness of the conversation is starting to happen.”
Research shows climate change is contributing to increasingly destructive hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. This season has already had four named storms, including Tropical Storm Cristobal, which caused minor flooding in the Panhandle. Forecasters with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center said they are projecting an “above-normal 2020 Atlantic hurricane season,” including three to six major hurricanes.
As the community rebuilds, they’re facing tough choices, without much guidance from local, state, or federal officials. “The question is now: ‘How can you build things that are going to be here for 20-30 years?’” Branch said. “It looks great today, but will it be here in four years?’”
Those critical conversations are on now hold because of the pandemic and hurricane season. This summer, city governments and emergency management teams across the Panhandle are racing to figure out how to handle a storm while preventing the spread of COVID-19. Frankie Lumm, Bay County’s emergency management director, has exhaustive plans for monitoring temperatures and keeping people distanced in shelters, but he’s worried about the logistics of evacuations and sheltering since so many are still homeless or living in trailers.
“What does that operation look like? Where would they be transported to?” he said. “I still have a lot of folks that are living in FEMA trailers and motorhomes in their own yards while their homes are being rebuilt.”
Transportation during a hurricane evacuation is a major concern. “I think there’s a lot we need to think carefully about — sheltering and transportation and what that looks like,” said Donna Pilson, executive director of Rebuild Bay County, which helps nonprofits with construction and relief programs. “Are we ready for another storm? I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Since the storm, many people in the area have struggled with mental health issues. Once the area’s schools reopened, officials reported more than 5,000 students were homeless. A school district survey done last spring revealed that a third of Bay County’s students and staff displayed signs of depression, anxiety, and PTSD. In addition to its other services, Project H.O.P.E provides mental health counseling and resource support for residents, which is becoming more urgent as recovery drags on. Sabatino, the director, said PTSD is a standard this time of year, during hurricane season. But now, she added, anxiety is also “heightened due to COVID.”
“For some of them, one was the big hurricane and then some people lost family members after that just due to regular health issues or other things, and then you have the loss of what you thought your life was gonna be like or how you thought you were going to rebuild and then you have COVID and all these setbacks,” Sabatino said. “So there’s a lot of things that people are dealing with.”
Helping them is much harder without funding, and the pandemic has drained resources for Michael relief efforts. Life Management Center, the Panama City mental health organization through which Project H.O.P.E operated, said donations are down tens of thousands of dollars.
“Now with COVID, [local businesses] have been hit more financially than the ones out of town have been,” said Life Management Center’s Brittany Cole. “So we can’t go to them and ask for money. We have to go to these big outside agencies that are getting requests from everywhere. So that’s been a huge issue of ours. We apply for every type of funding.”
Bay County emergency management director Lumm said the county is still applying for funding and trying to get equipment needed for hurricane preparedness and COVID-19. Life Management Center has received some to start another disaster relief group — called the Bay/Gulf County Recovery Project — that will carry on its mission, but they’re still in the early stages of development.
As those logistics are worked out, people are attempting to get their lives back on track. Bay County teacher Denise Powiliatis and her family have moved 15 times — nearly every month — since Hurricane Michael wrecked their house. The Powiliatises were finally getting ready to move back home in March, when COVID-19 threw a wrench in their plans: The materials their construction team needed to finish the job were in Louisiana — and pandemic travel regulations meant they couldn’t get there. It delayed the rebuild by another three months.
A year-and-a-half later, they’ve finally moved back into their home. “It’s an emotional process. Promises, disappointment, promises, disappointment. It was like this rollercoaster,” Powiliatis said. “I don’t ever want to go through it again.”
Ayurella Horn-Muller is a freelance reporter and regular Climate Central correspondent, based in Florida.