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Still in tents and makeshift shelters six weeks after the most powerful hurricane in its history hit the Florida Panhandle, thousands remained homeless on Thanksgiving day. Traveling to Bay County for the holiday, NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports.
SIMON OSTROVSKY, NEWSHOUR WEEKEND SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT:
For the Boutcher family, this year, this is what thanksgiving looked like.
Dad's Turkey is way better. Dad's tastes way better.
The reason they didn't celebrate around the dining room table? they no longer have one.
Turkey, cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes, everything you need for the perfect Thanksgiving except for the most important thing: A home. Like thousands of others in this area, the Boutchers lost everything in October in the most powerful storm to hit the Florida panhandle in history: Hurricane Michael.
Michael pounded the gulf shore with 155-mile-per-hour winds that laid waste to entire cities doing billions of dollars' worth of damage. At least 52 people across the us south-east were killed and up to 20,000 more were left homeless. Six weeks after the storm James Boutcher and his family are among the thousands of people county officials told us were still without adequate housing. They've been living in this shelter with over one hundred others.
JAMES BOUTCHER, HURRICANE SURVIVOR:
None of my children got hurt, nobody got hurt. I'm very thankful for that.
And do you think you're going to be able to find a place in the near future?
They want us to relocate but this is where we live, this is our home. There's homes out there, they're just too expensive for us because the area that it hit was all the affordable homes for families. So there's no available units for us at all.
And therein lies the crux of the problem. FEMA has handed out over $91 million in housing assistance to hurricane survivors in Florida so far. That may sound like a lot. But with so much devastation, rentals here are in short supply and those who don't want to leave the area because of jobs and schools are left with limited options: tents, shelters or ideally FEMA trailers.
But officials in Bay County, where the hardest hit cities of Mexico beach and Panama City are located, complain the federal emergency management agency has been slow to provide its residents with FEMA trailers.
PHILIP "GRIFF" GRIFFITTS, BAY COUNTY COMMISSIONER: FEMA doesn't help them. They estimate around 2,000 people have qualified for some sort of housing assistance. Right now there's less than probably a dozen what we consider FEMA trailers in Bay County. They tell us they're going to ramp those numbers up to 25 daily. I'd love to see that. It's hard to believe at the rate they're going right now.
although almost 1700 have been approved for trailers in the five worst-hit counties, FEMA has supplied just 40 in the month-and-a-half since the hurricane.
that means many Floridians are spending the holidays out in the elements.
Michael Cannon weathered the hurricane in his mobile home. This — is all that's left.
MICHAEL CANNON, HURRICANE SURVIVOR:
It's total devastation. The two bedrooms are gone. The kitchen, the walls. I watched the walls ripple like a rippling like this as the floor was shaking. It was scary.
FEMA officials point out that surveying damage and assessing eligibility when over 98 thousand have asked for help and information is a time consuming process. They also told us there were other ways to house survivors besides the trailers. More than 18 thousand have been approved for rental assistance, for example.
Tammy Nichols was one of those approved.
TAMMY NICHOLS, HURRICANE SURVIVOR:
Good morning everybody. Now we're ready to start our day.
But she told us there's nowhere to spend the money with so much of the housing stock damaged. Instead, she's been living in this tent city with her disabled daughter.
Even though you have money and a check there's not that many apartments even though they have this big long list there's not that many you know you have children you have disabled you have specific needs.
One issue we've heard county officials bring up with us is that there is rental assistance but there isn't necessarily places to rent from. There's no vacancies because so much of the housing stock has been destroyed.
RUBEN BROWN, FEMA EXTERNAL AFFAIRS OFFICER:
We're keenly aware of the housing situation. That's one of the challenges that we've faced here in the last few weeks. It's not a one size fits all solution. There are multiple approaches to this: Rent and repair, there's also transitional shelters assistance, there's also the travel trailers as part of the direct housing package so it's a multi-pronged approach providing housing to people in this area.
Everything is destroyed so this is home. But more importantly is we have our family and we're safe and we're starting over and that's ok.
For those braving the elements this holiday weekend, help can't come soon enough.
It's starting to get old now. Want to get a roof over our head. It's been some cold nights. I would like to receive help just like anyone would.
Did you ever expect that six weeks later by Thanksgiving you'd still be out of home?
Never. I'm thankful we're all together. You have to hang your hat on something. That's what I'm thankful for.
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