Years after storm, Gulf County communities still grapple with housing insecurity

Rainy nights were never good nights in the tent. In a thunderstorm, water would drip through the seams, and after a few hours, the nylon walls themselves would become heavy and saturated.

There was no escaping the damp, James said, but at least the Florida nights weren’t cold.

“It was a little cold at first, but then it warmed up for the summer. I got really lucky,” he said. “But boy, when all that water came… I was flooding. Everybody was flooding out in the Dalkeith area.”

“Hopefully none of us see any more of that water like that, because I’ve had just about enough water over the past three years.”

James, an Army veteran who requested that only his first name be used, lived in a tent on his property for months during the spring and summer of 2021. He has been homeless since 2018, when Hurricane Michael destroyed the house where he lived. 

The storm took his sister, one of his only remaining support systems in the area, and his construction business, which he could not sustain through the financial hardships that followed. For most of a year, he had no steady place to lay his head. But he helped his community where he could with skills gained through decades of construction experience.

At one point, Veterans Affairs stepped in to help him with medical costs, some from pre-existing difficulties, others from injuries incurred helping neighbors in the storm.

“They sent me to Biloxi, oh, not even a month after the storm for emergency surgery,” James said. “I was trying to get an elderly couple out of a house, and a tree beat my butt.”

And a few months later, after a hip replacement, the VA put James up in a hotel, giving him a few months to recuperate and a steady place to stay while he collected money from odd construction jobs that were easy on his body.

He used the money to put a deposit on a piece of land, but he still could not afford to build a home, so he pitched his tent until a better opportunity came along.

“I scrounged enough money to get a piece of property south of Wewa, and I lived on it in a tent for four months” James said. “ I didn’t know anything about a program, but someone reached out to me, and it’s been going uphill ever since.”

Now, the veteran lives in a borrowed camper, loaned to him as a temporary roof by the Citizens of Gulf County Recovery Team, a local organization looking to provide safe housing to Gulf County landowners and homeowners after disasters.

The camper is one of several the group rotates through Gulf County communities, and while it has seen better years, it provides a safe, dry shelter to landowners, like James, who were displaced during Hurricane Michael.

James has been in the camper for about six months while he waits for the organization to help him secure more permanent housing. Now, he says he sees an end in sight.

“You’ve got to have patience, because for these programs, the price of materials went up on the mobile homes,” James said. “But I am definitely on their list.”

“She told me today, probably about April, I’ll have a home.”

Three years after the storm, the job is not done

James is one of seven families currently awaiting placement in one of the Citizens of Gulf County Recovery Team’s donated mobile homes, which take months of fundraising and planning to secure. 

But the organization said that the seven homes will not come close to filling the amount of need they see in the community.

Kathy Gilbert, the Citizens of Gulf County Recovery Team’s case manager, said that stories like the veteran’s, are not uncommon in Gulf County. 

Wounds from Hurricane Michael are still felt deeply. The storm claimed the lives of at least 74 people, and the National Center for Environmental Information estimated that Michael caused upwards of $18 billion in damage in Florida. 

Three years later, insurance claims remain unsettled, and many have been forced to leave their homes and businesses behind. But those who had no financial safety net to fall back on, Gilbert said, were hit the hardest.

“What I am seeing is elderly, disabled, disabled vets, families, single moms,” she said. “And the situations they’re living in – the homes are uninhabitable, with mold making them sick.”

“Three years later, these homes haven’t been taken care of,” Gilbert said, “and there’s a lot of them.”

But while Gilbert knows there is need, tracking down those she can help can be tricky. Often, she gets new clients by referral, such as the VA’s referral for James. Other times, people come in looking for her.

But always, she says, her work depends heavily on support and interest from the community and the other organizations that serve it.

“We have a lot of great relationships with a lot of different agencies in the state of Florida as well as in our community,” she said. 

Loretta Costin, one of the organization’s founders, said that addressing poverty and homelessness in the community is a collaborative process. If the Citizens of Gulf County Recovery Team cannot help an individual, they have learned where to refer them so they can get the assistance they need.

To date, Costin said, the Citizens of Gulf County recovery team has helped more than 100 local families secure safer housing, whether that be a new home altogether or necessary repairs to an existing structure.

The organization is looking to roll out a new fundraising campaign in the coming weeks with donation amounts rangin from $10 to $5,000 and up. For more information about the fundraiser or to seek help for yourself or someone you know, visit the organization’s website at or call 850-270-8911.

Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.