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FEMA - Out of 476 options for Hurricane Michael evacuees, only one is in Panama City Beach.


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2018-10-28 02_56_13-Only one hotel accepting FEMA vouchers in Panama City Beach.png

Out of 476 options for Hurricane Michael evacuees, only one is in Panama City Beach.

PANAMA CITY BEACH — A child rides his bike about 40 feet, turns and gives a few more pushes before it’s time to turn around again. He does this over and over, zipping past an open doorway where a man sleeps inside one of a motel’s run-down units. The bed’s box spring is directly on the floor. A mattress is turned upright.

Many rooms here brim with bulging garbage bags and Rubbermaid storage bins, holding the remnants of what was left after Hurricane Michael ravaged homes and upended lives Oct. 10.

By a door in one room is a part of a car engine. For many in this post-hurricane world, what’s not broken, discolored in black mold or under rubble, suddenly seems irreplaceable and of value.

So many now have so little.

About half the rooms at the 18-unit Sun–N-Sands Motel — a place where in the past online Expedia reviewers urged others to stay away — are occupied by Hurricane Michael survivors.

The Federal Emergency Management Association is paying the tab for the emergency housing at this and other available hotels and motels.

Before the storm, the motel was for the most part transitional housing for the area’s poor and disenfranchised.


Now it very much is.

Places like this are often referred to as homeless hotels or drug dens.

But post-Michael, instead of chaos, there is gratitude by those displaced by the storm: Gratitude at the motel’s management who care enough to make and serve hot meals for their guests in the evening. Gratitude at the government for emergency assistance.

And there’s gratitude at the fortune that they found a motel room, a place with all its blemishes, open for hurricane survivors that is not too far from damaged Panama City and the surrounding cities they called home.

“This is a godsend,” said Michelle Patrick, 32, staying at the Sun-N-Sands.

This spot, the place where the little boy burns energy by riding his bike back and forth, is the only motel in all of Bay County that is on FEMA’s emergency hotels and motels shelter assistance list.

“Wow,” said Shaun Hewitt of the lack of local emergency hotel and motel shelters.

Area hotels that weren’t destroyed or badly damaged by Hurricane Michael have been packed with law enforcement first responders, utility workers, insurance adjusters, volunteers who are feeding the displaced, and residents who got out of harm’s way ahead of the storm and now have no home.

Hewitt, 27, his girlfriend and five children are staying at the motel. On occasion, Hewitt said, there have been eight children in the two-bedroom unit. They arrived shortly after the storm.

For now he is paying $350 a week, he said. He’s hoping FEMA takes over the bill for a week or two.

“This sure beats sleeping in a car,” said Nikki Rupp, 72, who did that very thing after the hurricane tore half the roof off her home.

Rupp, her husband, Clarence, 75, and their 30-year-old grandson, Cody Rupp, can stay at the motel on FEMA until at least Nov. 7. FEMA officials said they will stay in touch and see if the Rupps have lined up any other housing options as Nov. 7 approaches. Should they and others need to stay longer, that will be determined on a case-by-case basis, officials said.

The same goes for the roughly 2,700 people that FEMA is currently providing hotel and motel emergency shelter for.

Nikki Rupp spends a lot of time sitting outside and smoking on the patio of her unit at the Sun-N-Sands. She said there’s been a constant stream of cars pulling up asking if there are any vacancies. She tells them to check with the management.

“I don’t have the heart to say no,” she said. “I know the situation they are in.”

Sun-N-Sands manager Heather Gregg said she averages 200 calls a day from people trying to find shelter locally. In a span of 30 minutes last week, she missed 18 phone calls.

Currently 476 Florida hotels and motels are on the FEMA list for residents from the hardest-hit three counties — Bay, Gulf and Jackson — to consider evacuating to. But only 21 of these emergency shelters are in Panama City’s 850 area code region.

After the Sun-N-Sands, the next closest emergency shelter to the Panama City area is about 60 miles north in Marianna where one hotel is on the list. In this post-hurricane time, 60 miles no longer equates to an hour’s drive. Excessive traffic from all the service and emergency workers can make a 20-mile commute a two-plus hour ordeal.

That means getting to and from Destin’s two hotels on the list — should they be available — would take a great deal longer than the normal 90-minute commute from Panama City. Crestview, which is 93 miles from Panama City, has one hotel on the FEMA list.

Key West — 793 miles away from Panama City — also has one hotel on the list.

“We wish there was more options nearby,” said David Passey, a FEMA spokesman.

As of late last week, 1,042 hotel and motel rooms have been occupied by people seeking FEMA help for temporary shelter. Some 6,500 households have been authorized to use temporary shelters. The figure of those authorized increases daily as FEMA workers make contact with more people.

While the numbers change daily, it is clear that the majority of those displaced are seeking other options or staying in heavily damaged homes before turning to FEMA’s list of emergency hotel and motel shelters.

“We know the available units are not conveniently located, and we know people may not want to go to Pensacola (where there are nine hotels on the FEMA list) or Georgia,” Passey said.

The Patel family of Panama City hunkered down in a hotel before the hurricane. Damage to the property kept them from staying. They went home to a house where there were few walls left on the second story. Five family members lived in the two-bedroom duplex.

Riya Patel’s father and uncle work at local gas stations. Her mother works at Panama City Mall and she is a college student at Gulf Coast State College. Patel lost her laptop and her college books. They’d like to stay in the area, a place they have called home for six years since arriving from India.

Directly next door is Patel’s aunt and uncle’s two-bedroom duplex. A single blue tarp covered the roof last week. The roof could use more tarps.

A man comes by and tries to sell the family tarps. Riya Patel misunderstands.

“We are not looking for handouts,” she said and thanked him for stopping by.

Patel and her family — all five of them — moved in with her aunt and uncle for the time being.

“We don’t have anywhere else to go,” she said.

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