Jan. 20–PANAMA CITY — Bay County may still be a storm-torn county, but to thousands displaced from the area, it is still home.
Though three months have gone by many residents, stunted by financial troubles, legal issues, and lack of housing options, are still desperately struggling to return to the hometown they love.
Here are four stories of families struggling to return home.
Grace Hall, a lifelong citizen of Panama City, was 36 weeks pregnant when Hurricane Michael swept the county. When she began having slight contractions a week following the hurricane, Gulf Coast Medical Center recommended she travel to Tallahassee to give birth.
Hall has been unable to return to Panama City since due to lack of housing. Her former home, which she was renting, is no longer livable. Even in Tallahassee, Hall struggled to find someone willing to rent to her due to an eviction on her record placed after the hurricane, which she has been unable to fight because she can’t return.
Initially, Hall received some assistance from FEMA, which she planned to use to travel back home. However, she estimates about 90 percent of the funds have already been used up on hotels, food, and diapers for the new baby during her housing search, until she was finally accepted into a women’s home that had a space for her and her baby.
"The most challenging part of everything is leaving everyone I know after the storm," Hall said.
Despite now living in a women’s home, Hall has a case of survivor’s guilt, knowing she is taking hot showers while loved ones at home are struggling without utilities and a shortage of food.
Still, Hall wishes to return to Panama City, which is her home and has been her entire life.
"It’s where all of my memories are," she said. "I know every road like a Google Map in my brain. It’s home."
Hall has also had to send her 14-year-old son to Texas. Though Hall’s partner was able to be there for the birth, he has since had to return to Panama City, as he cannot stay with her in the all women shelter. Following the return to Panama City, he slept in his truck for weeks before he was able to find space in his brother’s home.
Now with a 2-and-a-half-month-old, the hurricane has left her with no transportation, no income to find housing and no family.
Sherry Cotterman was renting a home in the Callaway area with her three family members prior to Hurricane Michael.
"We did decide to stay for the storm, which is my biggest regret in all of this. We went to bed for the night on the ninth of October thinking that it wouldn’t be too bad," she said.
Cotterman, a native of Florida, said her prior experience with hurricanes misled her into believing the family would be safe even as Hurricane Michael barreled toward the coast. On the morning the hurricane made landfall, four more family members and one coworker joined them to hunker down in the brick home.
As the second half of the storm tore though the town, the family’s kitchen window finally blew in. Cotterman’s children were placed in the bathroom, an interior room, until water began leaking through the light fixtures. Then, the ceiling in each room began caving in.
One of the adults in the house grabbed the kids and ran to the neighbor’s house, who let them stay inside until the winds finally died down. That night, the family slept in their cars.
Cotterman, her partner, and their children spent the next week living in a hotel in Destin, then hopped to a friend’s home in Panama City Beach for the next two weeks as they fervently searched for a new place to stay.
"We would drop our kids off every day to my sister’s and drive to real estate companies who were still open, and apartment complexes. All of them were either destroyed or had no openings or were so expensive," she said. "Most of the places we looked at were asking upwards of $2,500 a month for a house smaller than what we were previously living in."
After no luck finding a suitable place in Panama City, the family began a search in the surrounding areas. They were able to find housing immediately in Fort Walton Beach.
"I want to return to Panama City so bad," Cotterman said. "Panama city is the only home I’ve ever known up until hurricane Michael. I wanted to raise my children in Panama City like I was."
Though the family continues to search for a place in town, Cotterman says it looks more and more like they will have to stay in the Fort Walton Beach area for at least another year before they will be able to come home.
"The most challenging part of this ordeal has been completely starting our lives over in a place where we know no one. Sure, it may only be an hour and a half to two hours away, but we can’t go visit everyday," she said. "We never thought any of this would have happened to us."
Cotterman’s partner still works in town, where he drives two hours each way to work as a general manager of a restaurant. The rest of Cotterman’s extended family is still living in Panama City.
Even after donations were given to the family, plenty of small expenses have eaten away at the family’s funds after losing everything. The family was denied FEMA assistance due to having renters insurance, but when the insurance money finally came in, the family was shocked by how little they received.
"You don’t realize all the small things you have lost until one day you’re doing something as simple as trying to cook dinner and you realize you don’t have a measuring cup," she said. "All of those little things have added up tremendously."
Panama City has been home to Alissa Pelham for 25 years.
Nine years ago, she moved into a rental in the Cove with her husband, Sean, near her family.
"The possibility of upheaving our lives to go anywhere else, is a tough pill to swallow. Our support system is here in Panama City and in the Panhandle," Pelham said. "We are currently commuting from the west end of the beach and that is exhausting."
In the early hours of Oct. 10, Alissa, Sean, and their 5 and 3-year-old girls, Hannah and Sophia, scrambled to the shelter at Rutherford High School for safety.
Alissa Pelham described the shelter conditions as deplorable, with people using buckets in the hallway as toilets when the bathrooms became unusable. However, she has no regrets about evacuating to the shelter because she is certain their vehicles would have been destroyed in the storm, had they stayed.
The family hurried back into the Cove as soon as they could, driving as close to their home as possible before dozens of fallen oak trees blocked their way.
"Our home was destroyed in the storm, but we were able to salvage most of our belongings and move them into three storage units," she said. "Two in Niceville and one in Miramar."
The winds of Hurricane Michael suctioned the roof off the home, allowing water to pour inside. After only three days, mold blanketed the interior walls of the rental.
The Pelhams were also spread far and wide, first staying in a Pensacola hotel for three days and then a bit closer to the city by moving into an Airbnb in Miramar Beach, graciously provided by Alissa’s company.
"I was able to work from the rental and we enrolled my oldest daughter in daycare through the holidays," Alissa Pelham said. "We kept an eye on the rental market and even homes for sale in Panama City. We had considered buying a home before the storm, but now we are very weary."
The family has finally been able to move into the west end of the beach, but are hoping for a more permanent solution soon, in part because the family has had to foster their two cats until they find suitable housing.
Soon, Alissa Pelham said, the family will likely move into her parent’s two bedroom, one bathroom home until something opens up. While the housing situation will be a tight squeeze, the family says renting a place at the rates they are finding, in addition to the cost of childcare, is simple unaffordable.
"We have no other choice. The thought of buying a home has really been taken off the table," Pelham said. "No matter what, we know insurance rates will be going up and property taxes will also rise due to the debris cleanup bills in the city and county."
Every day, Pelham fears when a future storm inevitably as strong as Hurricane Michael, and every night her daughter Hannah prays for the trees to regrow.
"Now that things have settled and we don’t have that adrenaline/survival mode to aid us, the hardest part is making decisions, both short term and long term," she said. "Looking at the market now, we can’t find any rentals that are even slightly comparable in standards of living and price. Everything is over our budget, and we don’t foresee anything going down for a long time."
By the time Laura Johnson’s family realized they needed to evacuate, it was too late — with only an hour until landfall and less than a quarter tank of gas, they had no choice but to hunker down.
Johnson’s family lived in an apartment complex before the storm. Though her unit in particular was relatively unscathed, the rest of the complex sustained major damage, which forced all occupants to leave their units.
Formerly a resident of Lynn Haven, Johnson spent two weeks searching for housing to no avail before transferring to Dothan, AL.
Still struggling to find permanent housing, Johnson is about to give birth in as little as seven weeks.
"The biggest struggle has been medical," she said. "The most challenging part of everything has been finding a place to stay and getting everything transferred over."
Now the rising cost of housing, combined with the lack of housing, is keeping the Johnsons from their return.
Living in Dothan has forced Laura to job hunt simultaneously to make ends meet.
"Panama City is home. Our family is there, and I personally have dreams of my children growing up and experiencing the things I experienced when I grew up," Johnson said. "We want to go home badly but it’s just not possible soon."
The Johnsons have been impacted financially in a huge way. Because Johnson has been unable to work, the family has almost completely depleted their disaster assistance funds and is paying double the rent they were in Panama City.
"It has all just put us in a financial mess."
Johnson hopes to refocus on returning home once their main concern is no longer on having a healthy birth.
"I understand that most people believe that Panama City is fine now, but it’s not," she said. "Panama City and surrounding areas are still struggling to get their lives back together."
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