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Florida Panhandle Still Feeling Effects Of Michael As New Hurricane Season Begins


Hundreds of tornadoes have torn through the U.S. in the last two weeks. Storms in Kansas, Ohio and Kentucky have leveled homes and caused several deaths. In Oklahoma, entire towns are underwater as the Arkansas River continues to top levees. And many parts of the country are now bracing for Hurricane season. It starts this Saturday, June 1. But in parts of the Florida Panhandle, you can still see signs everywhere of last year's most powerful storm.


Hurricane Michael came ashore in October. It was one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall in the continental U.S., a Category 5. I went to the Florida Panhandle to look at what still needs to be done to make these communities ready for the next round of hurricanes. One of the biggest challenges is that thousands of people still have nowhere to live.

Describe what we're looking at here.

SHELLY SUMMERS: A multitude of tents, people trying to salvage whatever they have left. I mean, I don't know. Really, how do you explain it? To me, it's my backyard, but it's home to many.

SHAPIRO: Shelly Summers lives north of Panama City on five acres with her husband and 7-year-old daughter and a bunch of people in her yard. This used to be a forest, but Hurricane Michael knocked down all the trees last October.

SUMMERS: Now we're just walking in what looks to me like the Sahara Desert.

SHAPIRO: About 18 people live here with no place else to go. Jacinta Octavia has been staying in this backyard for five months.

What's it like living here?

JACINTA OCTAVIA: It's like a family, you know? It's like children.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

OCTAVIA: They fight, and then they make up. That's how it is.

SHAPIRO: At one point there were 50 people living here. Everybody shares the same kitchen and bathroom inside the house. There's an extra refrigerator and freezer on the back porch. There's one big family dinner every day. Nobody pays rent.

OCTAVIA: She don't have to do this. Nobody else reach out to us.

SHAPIRO: Can you understand what it is about her that made her open her home up when other people would not?

OCTAVIA: OK. I'm kind of spiritual. I can tell you this. You believe angels still walk the Earth - she's one.

SHAPIRO: She's an angel.

OCTAVIA: Angels still walk the Earth.

SHAPIRO: I asked Shelly Summers why she does this.

SUMMERS: We're blessed. We still have our home. And they have nothing. So if we could at least offer them the comforts of home, it was worth it.

SHAPIRO: This is one small snapshot of the housing shortage in the Florida Panhandle. To get the big picture, it helps to have a bird's-eye view. From a helicopter, you see entire forests of downed trees like matchsticks all pointing in the same direction. Corporal Wade Boan from the Bay County Sheriff's Office flies us over some neighborhoods where every other roof has a blue tarp. He describes over the radio what we're seeing.

WADE BOAN: The eye of the storm came right over where we are right now.

SHAPIRO: There are piles of rubble and half-wrecked buildings that look like this storm passed by yesterday, block after block of empty lots, concrete pads where buildings used to be.

BOAN: Every freaking house over here was affected, man.

SHAPIRO: Lots of hurricanes create housing shortages, but this part of Florida has it especially bad because according to Panama City, almost three-quarters of people here are renters. Landlords kicked people out of damaged apartments, and rent doubled on the few places that were still livable.

MARK MCQUEEN: Ninety percent of our homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed. I mean, that was massive.

SHAPIRO: Mark McQueen is the city manager for Panama City, the biggest population center in Michael's path. He took this job in September after decades in the Army, just two weeks before the storm hit. He told me living through Hurricane Michael reminded him a lot of what he saw in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

MCQUEEN: It was greener (laughter). Other than that, it was exactly - the devastation, the destruction was just as pervasive as what you would find in a combat zone.

SHAPIRO: We're talking near a public housing apartment complex that used to be home to 140 families. It's been condemned, but more than seven months after the storm, it still hasn't been torn down. McQueen told me it's a catch-22.

MCQUEEN: Housing is our No. 1 issue. And it's sort of the chicken and the egg. If we don't get housing up, we can't get workforces in. If we don't get workforces here, we can't get the economy going. If we can't get the economy going, we can't get housing going. So it's just a vicious cycle.

SHAPIRO: Right after the storm, some renters did get help from FEMA - vouchers for hotels and, for lucky families, a camper or a trailer to stay in. But for most people, those FEMA vouchers ran out in April. Longer term, this area needs federal housing funds to rebuild. But Congress still hasn't passed a disaster relief bill. Normally they do that in the weeks right after a storm. And FEMA has pulled back from this area. For six months, this was where people could come to talk with someone from FEMA...


SHAPIRO: ...A big room off to the side of the county public library. When FEMA left the site last month, local nonprofits took over.

Just from where I'm standing right here, I can see family services, repair and rebuild, disability resources, health care - all of the different pieces of the puzzle.

JO SHAFFER: We've had a lot of folks come and visit today.

SHAPIRO: Jo Shaffer is the coordinator. She's with a local organization called Doorways which works with the homeless, a population that got a lot bigger after Michael.

SHAFFER: You know, you can go from having a very nice home to being homeless the day after the hurricane.

SHAPIRO: Even more than seven months after the storm, she says many people still come here in crisis. Like the other day, a man brought in his elderly father and two sons.

SHAFFER: All four of them were living together in a car. And after having done that for a period of time, you know, the grandfather's older and very fragile medically, and obviously the weather's getting hotter and hotter. You know, they had all kinds of medical issues.

SHAPIRO: And in the long term, the only real advice she can give people is get out of town.

SHAFFER: We're sending people, you know, 70 to a hundred miles away to find available housing at a realistic price.

SHAPIRO: The county estimates that around 25,000 people have left since the storm hit in October. That's about 15% of the population, and that has long-term consequences. Cities don't have as much tax revenue to work with. The school system gets funded per student, so some schools have closed. If next year's census count is low, this area could lose millions of dollars in federal funds. I met one couple that was forced to leave at their temporary home an hour north of Panama City. Keith and Susan Koppelman are settling into a strange new routine.

SUSAN KOPPELMAN: Come here, girl.


SHAPIRO: They were renting a mobile home near Panama City when Hurricane Michael hit. And when the owner kicked them out to do repairs, they slept in their car while looking for housing. Finally a stranger on Facebook offered a room for free. The catch - it's an hour inland. They are living in a damaged house, cooking their meals with a microwave and a hot plate. And in exchange for free rent, they have to look after horses.

KEITH KOPPELMAN: We feed the six horses, water them. I've been keeping up with the yard. Anything that he wants me to do, I'll do it throughout the week. That's how we...

SHAPIRO: That's like a serious job in addition to your full-time job, in addition to your two-hour commute.

K. KOPPELMAN: Yes, yes.

S. KOPPELMAN: It's like our jobs don't end. We come home, and we try to get as much done before dark and so we can get into bed at a decent hour and get up at 4 a.m. and do it all over again (laughter).

SHAPIRO: They're grateful even to have that. And while they're looking for a place to live in Panama City, Susan says the prices are a joke.

S. KOPPELMAN: All of a sudden it's like the rent - like, we're going to rent it for a thousand bucks or 950. And we were like...

SHAPIRO: Compared to what? What had you been paying before?

K. KOPPELMAN: $450 a month.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, so like more than twice.

S. KOPPELMAN: Twice - it doubled.

SHAPIRO: How much are you spending every week on gas?

K. KOPPELMAN: $120 a week.

SHAPIRO: I mean, just doing the math in my head, you're spending on gas what you could be spending for an apartment every month.




SHAPIRO: We're having this conversation seven months after the storm. How long do you think this recovery is going to take?

K. KOPPELMAN: Ten years.

S. KOPPELMAN: I agree.

SHAPIRO: That's the long-term fear. Short-term, all those downed trees could become kindling in a lightning storm. The tarps covering damaged roofs could blow off with just a heavy wind. And the new hurricane season starts on Saturday.

Tomorrow - why small towns in the Florida Panhandle have extra challenges rebuilding and keeping residents around long enough to see results. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.