When Noel Santiago came to save the kids from Hurricane Michael, they were frozen.
“They were in shock,” he said. “If you didn’t grab ‘em by the arm and yank they wouldn’t’ve moved. Then who knows where they’d be.”
Santiago, 53, dragged his friend, 34-year-old Rosa Perez, and her two children, down to the first story of Macedonia Garden Apartments in Panama City as the howling winds of Hurricane Michael ripped the roof off their second-story apartment.
A week later, many of the residents of the public housing complex are still here. They’re camping out amid the mouldering remains of their shredded apartments and cars, cooking over fires in common areas and lighting their mildewing spaces with candles when night falls.
Like the tens of thousands displaced by the storm, many of these people don’t have places to go — or a way to get there if they did.
There are rumors circulating that residents have three days to leave their ruined apartments or they won’t be able to be transferred to a new apartment building. Residents huddle in hallways, smoking cigarettes and anxiously discussing their next moves. Perez has been making the rounds, insisting to other residents that management can’t make them leave.
“Legal services came and told us,” she said. “They can’t do that. They want FEMA to put us in a hotel and not take the rental voucher.”
“Everybody is scared by that,” she added.
Perez and her family lost everything in the storm. They’re living with a friend until Perez gets her FEMA voucher for two months’ worth of rent. She doesn’t have a bank account, so she’s been waiting a week for the mail to be delivered with her voucher.
For many in the community, the world has narrowed to what’s within walking distance.
The nearest aid station is just over two miles away at a Baptist church. Without a vehicle or a shopping cart to carry the goods home in the scorching heat, it’s out of reach.
Perez got her first tarp Friday, when someone passing through handed a few out. The Red Cross brings hot meals daily, and occasionally FEMA or medical personnel come by. Residents keep a sharp eye for supply drops.
“What was that?” asked Perez’s 14-year-old daughter, Carolina Perez, as she peers over the balcony at a group of people carrying cardboard boxes away from the trunk of a car. As she watches, the driver slams the trunk and drives out of the complex. “Oh, they’re gone.”
The last time Perez saw her 7-year-old son, who’s been staying with his father, she said he threw himself at her knees and sobbed.
“He said ‘Mommy, I want to go home.’ I said, ‘Baby, I don’t got a home,’” Perez said.
Hotels are booked up clear up to Mobile, Alabama, and the devastation and electricity problems are so widespread rentals homes are nearly impossible to find. Trailers and RVs are in short supply.
For some, the best, and most affordable, option is a shelter. A week after the storm, the population at the dozen shelters in this region of the Pandhandle-skyrocketed from 1,500 to nearly 2,400 in one day, with an additional 500 people in the three special needs shelters.
Steven Wallace, 65, ended up in a shelter the day before the storm, when he realized he couldn’t survive a Category 4 hurricane in his Panama City apartment. He was right: His place was trashed, and his landlord sent him a notice that he had 72 hours to get out.
“I was told by others they plan to bulldoze it,” Wallace said.
He’s supposed to get his security deposit back, he said, but the voicemail box for the management company has been full since the storm so he hasn’t heard any news.
He slept on the floor with a blanket for three days at the Northside Elementary School shelter before the cots showed up. A couple of days later, he and the other shelter residents were moved to Surfside Middle School in Panama City Beach.
“I have no idea,” he said. He’s on Social Security and hunting for a Veterans Affairs office for some help finding a place to live. He said his options for temporary FEMA housing are Bradenton, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
“They said I qualify for a hotel/motel, but they’re far away,” he said. “It does me no good because all my doctors are here.”
Even if people like Wallace did manage to find a temporary space to call home for a few months, it’s not clear how much affordable housing will be available down the road.
FEMA spokeswoman Deanna Frazier said the agency is paying for 671 hotel rooms for displaced survivors throughout the state — and in neighboring states too. The storm knocked out most of the available hotels in the area, leaving survivors with options far away from their homes.
“Staying in the Bay County area is going to be impossible,” she said.
Joe Rodgers, a produce wholesaler from Moultrie, Georgia, grew up vacationing in Mexico Beach and eventually bought some property. Hurricane Michael turned his family vacation spot — and the other duplex he rented out — into rubble.
“I wasted my time boarding it up,” said Rodgers, 46.
Like many across the Panhandle, he didn’t have flood insurance. And the talk of the onerous new building code — he heard his new houses might have to be 16 feet above ground — has him considering just selling once he finishes rebuilding.
“I dang sure can’t afford to build two houses just to rent ‘em,” he said.
That means a price hike for the renters, rippling out into the areas that serve the vacation communities. Rodgers said he expects the process to gentrify the area, pushing poorer folks further out.
“It’ll look more like Sandestin,” a resort community, he said. “It won’t be the same.”
In the meantime, some families have had to resort to creative housing measures.
Christopher Schaefer, 25, and his family evacuated to a $70-a-night hotel in Alabama. After the storm, that price quickly climbed to an unsustainable $120-a-night.
The next best option, he decided, was camping.
Schaefer bought a 12-person tent, a gas stove and a couple of air mattresses. He packed it all into his Jeep and set off for home with his girlfriend, 26-year-old Alle Nunn, and their three kids.
The home they rented in Callaway was crushed and looted when they arrived, so they set up camp next to a friend’s house miles inland.
“It’s not a bad setup,” Schaefer said. “The kids are having a blast.”
The plan is to stay in the tent until their home gets power, then move back in to the semi-livable part of their house. But the financial pressures are mounting.
Their property is locked in a storage unit they rented before the storm, but the electronic keycard entry won’t work without power so they’ve had to buy new clothes and toiletries. They’re renting a U-Haul van by the day because their Jeep broke down on the drive back from Alabama. Schaefer’s employees for his roofing company are scattered to nearby states, so it’s impossible to get a crew together to start working.
They plan to stay, Nunn said. Plenty of their neighbors aren’t.
“We’ve already been seeing people packing up in a U-Haul and leaving,” she said. “Why would they wanna stay if there’s nothing left?”
Outside the tent lit by battery-powered LED camping lights, Christopher Schaefer, 4, crouched in the dirt and swung a plastic dollhouse open and closed.
“We found it,” he said. “In the storm.”
He carefully placed each of his toys in their own bed. The green army man in the top bunk. The T-Rex in the bottom bunk. The stuffed manatee wouldn’t fit in a bed, so he slept in the kitchen. Behind him, his mom prepared the air mattress he’d sleep on with his 3-year-old brother and 2-year-old sister.
“Look,” Christopher said. He pushed the purple alarm clock next to the bunk beds, prompting a pre-recorded voice to chirp “Good Morning! What are we going to do today?”
“It’s magic,” he said.
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