By Carrie Hunter
It’s May 2019, over six months after Hurricane Michael in Panama City.
Stephanie, a young mother of three, walks through her gutted house. Rafters and beams are exposed. There is a bare concrete floor beneath her feet. The roof of her house was replaced and most of the damaged drywall was removed. There is no furniture, family photos, or children’s toys laying around and no electricity or plumbing. To Stephanie, the house no longer feels like a home.
Her husband is at work, and her children are with her sister while she visits the house surveying the damage. Stephanie is a dance teacher and her husband Anthony works at a credit center. Most people would consider them a stable, middle class family that did most things right. They own their own home, have insurance, and provide well for their children. When Hurricane Michael hit, they evacuated.
When Stephanie returned, at first she thought they had been spared. The outside of the house looked okay, but on entering, they saw a hole was torn in the roof. Water, insulation, and debris collapsed the ceiling over their living room and kitchen.
The good news was that their insurance helped the entire family move into a small condo on the beach. Panama City was badly damaged, but just over the bridge the beach area was barely touched. This became the haven for many families in the months after the storm.
Seven people were squeezed in tight into three rooms, but considered themselves lucky compared to the families nearby living in tents. Stephanie still takes her children to dance and martial arts classes each week to keep a sense of normalcy for her girls while they wait for contractors to fix their house.
Insurance covered six months of rent, which they believed would be enough. But in May, that money ran out, and they are still waiting for an electrician to become available. At the same time, tourists flood into Panama City Beach causing the rent to triple. This has left many families without anywhere to go. Most of the affordable housing was destroyed during the storm and hasn’t been rebuilt. The cheap motels that lined Highway 98 are mostly gone, unlikely to be fixed anytime soon.
Tomorrow, Stephanie will pack up her belongings and move for the fifth time to a different condo. This is required because anyone who stays longer than a month becomes a long-term renter, which is against most agreements in tourist areas. Stephanie looks at options like buying a camper trailer or renting an apartment. The costs of all the options of housing in the area are inflated so high that it feels like it will break their finances.
A month later, Stephanie and Anthony are able to rent a camper trailer from a friend. They now live in the driveway of their house. It is still unfinished, but the electrical company has started working.