PANAMA CITY, Fla. (CN) – On any given night, volunteers with the Grace Project prowl the streets of Panama City, armed with cages and bags of food. They drive past the motel missing its roof and the tent city behind the furniture store before turning into a neighborhood rendered desolate by Hurricane Michael – the third most powerful storm on record.
These ladies are ostensibly looking for stray dogs and cats abandoned or lost after the hurricane ripped through Florida Panhandle with 160 mph winds last October.
Before the storm, the volunteers rarely encountered people while they trapped stray cats to spay and neuter.
But these days, animals in need inevitably lead to humans in need.
Like the time a volunteer followed a cat into a condemned apartment building and found an elderly woman on dialysis, living in her previously subsidized home without running water, using bags as her toilet.
That was two weeks ago – nearly seven months since Michael decimated this small Panhandle city and surrounding Bay County.
“Every time there’s whole bunch of cats,” says Lisa Jones, who helps run Grace Project Animal Rescue, “there’s a little old lady.”
“She wouldn’t leave, because she wouldn’t leave her cats,” Jones explains. “The pets lead us to the people. And when we get there, we start finding they need water, help with their roof.”
“And human food.”
On Oct. 10, Michael, which strengthened from a tropical depression to a Category 5 storm in 72 hours, slammed into this rural part of Florida, killing 35 and causing more than $25 billion in damage. The storm broke several meteorological records.
Yet seven months later, recovery has languished. Many residents still live in damaged homes, campers and tents. As construction workers come to the area to rebuild, they compete with the displaced for the few motels and affordable housing not destroyed by the storm.
One out of every six students still lives in temporary housing, according to the Bay County School District.
The moniker for this region – the Forgotten Coast – has turned into a cruel cliché.
Local pressure on the federal government intensified in recent weeks as Panama City and Bay County enter the 212th day without federal disaster aid – the longest such wait on record.
By contrast, Congress approved disaster aid for Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017, within a couple weeks.
Congressional negotiations over a $17 billion disaster relief package halted recently when Democrats demanded more funding for Puerto Rico, which was hit by two hurricanes in 2017. Republicans blame Democrats for stalling to gain political points with Puerto Rican voters. Democrats note that Republicans had control of both chambers for 11 weeks after the storm.
In the face of congressional inaction, the Florida Legislature passed a budget with $1.8 billion in hurricane recovery on May 4, its last day in session. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis and U.S. Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio have repeatedly asked the federal government for more aid.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has disbursed $1.2 billion in federal funds for recovery efforts, including grants, low-interest loans and paid insurance claims. Earlier this week, FEMA approved several reimbursement requests from local governments dealing with the costs of removing more than 18 million cubic yards of debris.
But those on the ground say that aid is just trickling in, much like the water through their damaged roofs.
“You think things are getting better,” Jones says, “and then there’s someone’s grandma over there living in a condemned apartment building with her cats.”
Jones and a group of other women started Grace Project Animal Rescue 16 months ago to support other animal rescue nonprofits that might lack funds, supplies or volunteers.
“Then the storm hit and it was the people who needed to be rescued,” Jones explains in her slight southern accent while driving through the east end of Panama City. “We’re finding people still.”
“Listen, this is out of our spectrum,” Jones says of the nonprofit. “We’re animal people.”
As the weeks wore on, the Panama City native found out her knowledge of the nonprofit world was perfectly suited for coordinating help to people as well as animals. Word spread about Grace Project on social media and people began tagging her in posts on Facebook groups dedicated to hurricane recovery information.
It was two months after the storm when Jones received a call from a volunteer about an older man and his dog living under a tarp on a vacant lot. The volunteer found him while searching for a missing cat. When Jones went out to investigate, the situation was even more dire.
The 81-year-old man was sleeping on a blanket tucked under his truck with a tarp laid out over the vehicle to keep the rain out. His American bulldog, Holly, slept under there with him. She had huge tumors on her belly – breast cancer. Across the street, the man’s home was barely standing. He had no electricity, no running water. Temperatures dropped into the 40s that month.
“I had to get a little cranky with FEMA,” Jones whispers.
When Jones arrives now, Peter Kitt is sitting in his truck, wearing a hoodie in the stifling heat. Kitt, who is diabetic, gets cold easily. He was taking a break from sorting a yard full of his possessions – now mostly scrap metal and junk – before he hauls it to the landfill.
With the hoodie pulled over his graying dreadlocks, Kitt looks younger than his 81 years. Maybe it’s his vegetarian diet, he says. Kitt came to the region in 1956 for work. He helped build some of the hangars at Tyndall Air Force Base, structures now severely damaged by Michael.
“I took a liking to Panama City,” he says, so he bought a home and raised a family here.
Kitt gives a small tour. That’s his house, once a large ranch-style home, now partially caved in, blue tarp over the façade. Over there, in the trees at his property line, is his neighbor’s roof.
“What is he supposed to do with this?” Jones asks.
When Jones first met Kitt, the yard had several downed trees, blocking him from salvaging any of his belongings. Jones and some of the other women from the nonprofit came back with chainsaws and cut a path.
“You would not believe the talents that us women found out we had,” she says.
In the front yard sits a small FEMA trailer, the work of Jones’ more obstinate, and sometimes cantankerous, part of her personality. Per federal rules, FEMA will allow Kitt to use it for 18 months.
“Who knows,” Jones says. “You can ask 100 questions to 100 people and you get different answers every time.”
Kitt goes inside for a moment to retrieve a letter he received this week. Jones looks out over the debris-strewn yard, nearly every inch covered by something.
“We’re finding older people are starting to collect everything,” she says in a hushed tone. “Even food.”
Kitt returns with an official letter from Senator Rubio’s office. The letter thanks Kitt for attending a recent community meeting and promises help is coming “as soon as possible.”
“It’s something,” Jones says. “It’s a recognition … That’s more than a lot of people in Bay County got.”
Kitt also has a business card from a contractor who stopped by.
“Don’t give them any money,” Jones says sternly.
“I don’t have any money,” Kitt replies with a smile.
Kitt goes to retrieve his dog Holly from the damaged home. FEMA does not allow pets inside the trailers.
The white and chocolate-colored canine rubs her basketball-sized head against Jones, who brought treats.
She’s still part of an animal rescue organization, after all.
Those outside the Panhandle region can read statistics and news reports outlining the needs that still exist for residents of Bay County, but a drive down U.S. 98 through towns like Callaway, Parker and Mexico Beach more accurately reveal a region still reeling from Michael’s disastrous effects.
In Parker, tents stand behind wrecked trailers. In Lynn Haven, people still live in homes already condemned by the city. On one such trailer, an Easter basket sits in the yard next to three purple and pink tricycles.
The debris mounds lining the roads may not be as tall as houses anymore, but they’re still there.
Tyndall Air Force Base, one of the area’s largest employers before the storm, was severely damaged in the storm with nearly 700 buildings damaged or completely destroyed. On May 1, construction work on the military base stopped due to a lack of federal funding.
Each vacant business means more jobless residents in a region that did not have a lot of employment opportunities to begin with.
In Mexico Beach, where Michael made landfall, up to 90% of homes were damaged or destroyed. Seven months later, foundation slabs still dot the beach like tombstones. The tall pines lining the two-lane road are permanently bent, much like residents’ spirits. Some are snapped in half.
“You still see people trying to be normal,” Jones says, pointing to a couple lying on the beach under a colorful umbrella amid the rubble. “But the storm has taken a psychological toll.”
Just the other day, Jones took in a box of clothing donations with some nice shirts and fancy socks. She later found out the 90-year-old man who owned the clothing lived on Mexico Beach. He survived the hurricane and continued to live in the mostly deserted town, until one day he tied an anchor around his neck and jumped off his dock.
“Stories like that keep me fueled,” she says.
Joan Condy has lived in her manufactured home in Panama City for the last 43 years. The 83-year-old widow stayed at a shelter after the storm, then quietly returned to her damaged home.
“I didn’t have anyone to help me,” Condy says. “We were forgotten.”
In the weeks after the storm, the Pennsylvania native began noticing several cats roaming her devastated street.
“They were so traumatized,” she says.
So, alone and maybe a little lonely, Condy began feeding them half of her Meals on Wheels dinners.
“Once you feed them, they never leave,” she says.
The petite woman with short reddish hair sits in a recliner with an oxygen tank by her side while Jones checks out an air conditioning vent on the floor near the TV. A few weeks ago, a cat popped her head up through the vent.
“If it was a snake it would’ve done me in,” Condy chuckles.
The cat was pregnant and delivered her babies behind a couch. That’s when Jones and the Grace Project got involved.
Jones takes an inventory of the repairs still needed for Condy’s home: bathroom ceiling caving in, a few leaks in the living room, duct work under the house so no more pregnant cats come inside. She also needs some Ensure nutrition drinks.
“I want to pay,” Condy says. “I don’t want anything for free.”
Later, Jones says an out-of-town nonprofit she contacted may come this weekend to do some of the work for free.
“Mostly people like [Condy] are proud people,” she says. “They won’t say they don’t have food or need something done.”
Jones said Condy once expressed interest in a nursing home – not that there are any left in the city – but she has since changed her mind.
“Even in all this mess, she would rather be home,” Jones says. “They shouldn’t be there. These little old ladies have sat here for seven months just waiting on someone.”
Although Condy doesn’t feel well, she chats up her visitors, enjoying the company. Jones promises to be back later in the week and bids goodbye.
It’s day 212 since the storm and she has more work to do.