At her home on the outskirts of Panama City, Shelly Summers stumbles out of bed before sunrise. In darkness, she puts on a robe appropriately embellished with hearts.
Shelly wears her reading glasses as a hair accessory to hold back her thick auburn hair. She brews coffee and then gets to the task at hand: cleaning up the mess from dinner and sanitizing the bathroom. There are 14 people sharing her house, after all.
They were strangers once. Now, they are more like family.
They sleep in tents in Shelly’s hurricane-ravaged back yard but they’ve been given free access to her house; Shelly’s only rule is that they take their shoes off when coming indoors. The whooshing sound of the sliding door to the porch fills the house. In and out, in and out.
At tent city, there were no showers. But at Shelly’s, they can take warm showers, wash their clothes and Shelly cooks their meals from scratch every day.
Shelly likes to get a head start on making dinner. It’s no small chore. One night can consist of three to six gallons of sweet tea, 15 pounds of potatoes, four and a half pounds of mixed vegetables and 20 pounds of ham. It’s like Thanksgiving with your entire extended family every day, except there are never leftovers.
Shelly’s backyard tents sit on a deep gray plane of dirt, shrouded by a wall of fallen over trees. They’re not organized into finite rows. They run like veins, and in the heart, there’s a Christmas tree.
For many who lost everything in the storm, the tree resembles branches of hope and normalcy wrapped in twinkling string lights. It also remains the lone glimpse of green on the property.
On this December morning, Shelly parts through a sea of blue tents to give morning hellos to everyone. She makes sure she helps her guests with anything they might need.
They were left homeless by Hurricane Michael, the catastrophic storm that leveled large chunks of the Florida Panhandle last October. After local authorities decided to shut down the tent city where they had sought refuge, they might have been living on the street.
But then Shelly appeared, like an angel, to save them.
Hurricane Michael had not spared Shelly either. Six trees toppled like twigs on her home, tucked in the woods of an incorporated area of Bay County. After the storm, she was forced to climb over two fallen trees just to get in her front door.
She applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) but was denied help. She is 50 years old, but age didn’t deter her. Neither did the Florida heat. She cleared the trees by herself while her husband, Sam, was at work. She has deep pink scars up and down her arms to prove it.
Sam tried to tell her to stop but they had been married long enough now for him to know she would keep going.
The two met at a bar on Shelly’s 24th birthday. Her friends had asked her what she wanted for a gift. She pointed at Sam. She’s had him ever since.
Eventually, Shelly and Sam rented tree clearing equipment for one week for the backyard, but the prices were gouged, like everything else in Bay County. They had to hire an attorney after they were charged $2,200 for a $700 excavator.
Shelly was tenacious in her post-storm clean-up. Halloween was around the corner and it was important for her to be able to put up decorations. She wanted normalcy for the kids in the community.
How Tent Residents Ended Up At Shelly's Home
Shelly had little idea of the extent of suffering in her community. She and Sam had no cable after the hurricane and their television sat dark until early November when they decided to sign up for satellite service. Sam missed watching the news.
One evening, Shelly watched as a news anchor interviewed a woman in a wheelchair. Shelly noticed a little girl perched next to the woman; she seemed just slightly younger than her own daughter Gabby.
In the background, Shelly could see rows and rows of tents that had been set up in a church parking lot. She learned this tent city for the homeless was only minutes away from her home.
Shelly’s heart sank.
Tent city started as a way to house displaced Bay County residents after Hurricane Michael. But as it grew, so did the problems: drugs, theft, rape and child molestation. Out-of-state vagrants came in that weren’t supposed to. It reached 800 people at its peak.
On December 11, 2018, local authorities shut it down.
“This isn’t right,” Shelly said to her husband, Sam, as they watched the news. People from her community didn’t have a safe place to rest their head at night after losing their homes in Hurricane Michael.
After 20 years of marriage, Sam could predict his wife’s actions before she even said a word.
The next morning Shelly packed her 6-year-old daughter Gabby into her Ford Taurus and headed to the tent city. When she arrived, she was met with a pungent scent of alcohol and urine. It was overwhelming.
They spent the day going up to all of the tents. If they were local and lost their home in the storm, she invited them to stay at her house. Taking them home was an instant decision for her.
Now, because she has 14 extra people living at her house, people needing her and calling throughout the day is constant. However, Shelly doesn’t get stressed easily unless something is wrong with her kids.
Shelly has adopted 25 kids over the years and has had two of her own. She can fix almost any problem.
The only thing she couldn’t fix was when her biological son, Logan, died in a car accident. He was 17 when he passed. She can recall the day and time he died in perfect detail.
It was June 17, 2005. Her daughter Kiersten slipped into her room at 4:26 a.m. and said she was worried Logan wasn’t home yet. Shelly tried to call him. The unanswered ringing pierced through the early morning stillness.
She left him a mom voicemail, a you-better-get-home-now-or-you’re-in-big-trouble kind of message. She fell back asleep.
Then the hospital called.
They spoke the generic words that you only hear on TV: “Your son has been in an accident.” She started to argue with them because she dreamed that Logan had walked in the door. It’s a dream she still has.
Her ex-son-in-law drove her to the hospital. The engine purred and revved as he hastily tried to get there. “Slow down,” Shelly warned. “There’s no point in the rest of us dying.” A bad feeling loomed over her as they grew closer.
Soon, Shelly was crouched over a sterile hospital bed, picking shards of glass out of her son’s eyes. His vitals shut down. He wasn’t going to make it.
Sometimes, she feels that if she could drive to every square inch of the world she might be able to find him. To her, it’s a never-ending feeling that he’s lost.
His room was left untouched for 10 years. On Mother’s Day in 2007, she crept into his bedroom while drugged up on high doses of Cymbalta depression medication.
Shelly laid down in a catatonic state on his bed and stared at the ceiling, clouded with memories of what the holiday once was.
She remembered in the past that all she asked was to have her kids home for the holiday.
And on Logan’s untouched bed, drowning in melancholy, she put a gun to her head.
She didn’t pull the trigger, but suicide attempts were a side effect of losing Logan. Shelly says her life ended the day he died and now she’s just here. She was diagnosed with Broken Heart Syndrome, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
After Logan’s death, her husband was watching her slowly die. She felt apathetic towards minute parts of a normal routine. Even running a brush through her hair was too much. She refused to eat for a long time. If Logan couldn’t do everyday things, like eat, shower, live, then how could she?
Sam didn’t have a chance to mourn the loss of Logan because he took care of Shelly in her worst times. Shelly still feels guilty.
Even now, Sam and Shelly receive signs from Logan. One day Gabby looked up at the sunlight shining through the clouds and said, “Look, it’s Logan!” Sometimes newspaper clips of his death mysteriously find their way back to them.
Logan was going to change the world like her. They were soulmates. He would be right beside her today taking in people from tent city.
Though no one could ever replace Logan, the tent residents are family to her now, too. Even though most of them are older than Shelly, they need her. She feels as though every one of them is her child.
Ironically, many of Shelly’s tent residents moved to Bay County shortly before the storm. Flossie Hogan, 48, came to Florida a few months earlier from Tennessee. She didn’t know how strong hurricanes were.
Jacinta Wheeler, 58, moved up from Kissimmee, FL, only two weeks before the storm. During the storm, she stayed in Panama City at a friend’s place.
At first, she wasn’t afraid. She’s from Trinidad and Tobago and had experienced storms in the Caribbean before.
But Michael scared her. The wind grew stronger, a tree slammed into her house and soon after, the entire roof ripped off. She crouched in a bathroom and prayed.
When she found her home uninhabitable, she stayed in an abandoned building nearby. It wasn’t until she went to Home Depot that someone told her about tent city. She stayed there until its very last day when Shelly picked her up.
Three months after the hurricane, Bay County looks frozen in time.
Stores sit abandoned. Wires dangle precariously, still buzzing with electricity. Ceiling insulation litters parking lots as though they were breadcrumbs leading to the region’s suffering
Mounds of trash line the streets. They contain anything from pieces of wood ripped off homes to mold-soaked teddy bears.
Black mold is beginning to set into homes. If you had homeowner’s insurance, you were denied help from FEMA.
Even the insured cannot afford services and goods; prices soared after Michael. Gas prices are about 50 cents higher than the rest of Florida, according to AAA’s website. Roofing costs have doubled.
Salvation Army helped by giving $250, a wagon and a tent. They issued a warning: put one up and face immediate arrest. Instead, the government started handing out one-way bus tickets out of town.
Many residents feel they are pushing out poor people barely surviving day to day; people who now have no other option but to leave.
The city is a paradox. For every solution, there is another problem.
How Long Can It Last
Shelly originally brought seven people home, but today she has 14 living in her backyard. That’s not counting the six people she helped place in homes.
Sometimes, people find her on Facebook and bring in donations. She also gets help from informal ad-hoc volunteer groups like the Cajun Navy.
Shelly knows that rebuilding from Michael will take two to three years. This, to her, isn’t a temporary solution. She is planning on creating permanent living in her backyard.
Eventually, the Cajun Navy is supposed to help her build domes in her backyard for residents instead of tents.
Though the local government has strict ordinances on building codes, Shelly is not afraid of them. She describes herself as a yankee, bullheaded.
Shelly never expects to get anything back. She does it for the feeling. The hugs from people she’s helped or even the look on someone face when she solves their problem. That, to her, is worth everything.
Shelly has been this kind of person her entire life. She remembers as a young child being the one to ask her mom if she needed anything.
She will take in as many of the Hurricane Michael’s victims as will fit in her yard. And if the money runs out, she’s willing to sell her house and even live in a tent.
They may be Bay County’s forgotten but Shelly is determined to do whatever it takes to help them. They are family to her now.
WUFT News Special Report | January 21, 2019