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'FEMA Trailers' To Roll Out In Housing-Strapped Panhandle Counties

This antique store in Blountstown was severely damaged by Hurricane Michael. (October 2018)
Ryan Dailey

Hurricane Michael has damaged and destroyed thousands of homes and apartments in the panhandle and what’s left isn’t enough to meet the demand. Now FEMA is offering up its “FEMA Trailers” to help address the need.

The so-called “FEMA trailers” are now an option in areas of the panhandle where the housing inventory is slim-to-nothing. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s own data shows the need for housing in Bay, Calhoun, Gadsden, Gulf and Jackson counties is outstripping the number of properties available for rent in those areas.  It suggests about 7,500 people could be eligible. During a recent interview FEMA spokeswoman Nikki Gaskins called the trailers a “last ditch” option for the agency.

“It’s not FEMA’s decision in the long-run," she said prior to the announcement. "We’re working to make those decisions with the state and local governments, so those could be an option down the road.” 

There aren’t enough properties available through the short-term, temporary shelter assistance program which allows for hotel stays. The same is true for the longer-term rental assistance program, which helps people secure a rental property. FEMA’s own website showed no hotels participating in the TSA program in the Panama City area and only a few throughout the panhandle.

“Ideally you’d want to get a hotel that’s close to your home, but sometimes, depending on the situation, that may not be an option," said Gaskins. "Some people may have to go outside the city to get a qualifying hotel.  At the end of the day, these hotel and motels, participate of their free will. So people should be aware that if you live in the affected areas, you may have to go outside your county or city to get a hotel.” 

The decision to begin offering the trailers is one made at the state and local level, even though FEMA coordinates where those trailers go, and to whom. The program is only for homeowners. And residents qualify for it only when no other options are available or they can’t get help elsewhere.

“There’s 10,000 people without a place to live," said Legal Services of North Florida's Scott Manion. "All the daycare centers are destroyed. All the nursing homes are destroyed. They can’t find any of the teachers, they can’t get the schools open…there’s nowhere to put people.”  

Other FEMA programs allow local governments to enter into leases of properties that wouldn’t normally be available to disaster survivors. And they allow local governments to do the same with multi-family properties.

The moves to expand housing options and programs come after U.S. Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, and North Florida Congressmen Neil Dunn, Matt Gaetz and Al Lawson sent a letter to FEMA asking to make the programs available in Bay, Calhoun, Gadsden, Gulf and Jackson Counties. 

*Clarification: This story initially identified a "Direct Temporary Housing Program" as being responsible for the FEMA trailers. There are actually several housing programs being offered through FEMA.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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