Spring tourism means the annual readjustment of daily, weekly and monthly rental rates, generally doubling in price from the winter season — and by extension displacing many Hurricane Michael survivors living in temporary housing on the Beach for a second time.
(TNS) — Four months after Hurricane Michael struck Bay County with irresistible force, hundreds of people temporarily living in Beach rental units find themselves confronted by an immovable object: on-season prices.
From the entrance to St. Andrews State Park on the east end to Carillon Point near the Bay-Walton line, the entire Panama City Beach "island" is once again gearing up for Spring Break and the beginning of the 2019 tourist season. For the past few months, the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau has been blanketing the nation with an advertisement campaign affirming that the pristine white beaches were left unscathed by Hurricane Michael. That message adds: Beach tourist lodgings, restaurants and entertainment sites are eagerly awaiting the annual influx of spring visitors.
Spring tourism also means the annual readjustment of daily, weekly and monthly rental rates, generally doubling in price from the winter season — and by extension displacing many Hurricane Michael survivors living in temporary housing on the Beach for a second time.
People who work in the Beach tourist industry point out that the jump in prices is not a product of owner greed, but a result of market demand.
During the winter season that runs from November through February, one experienced property manager said, owners "typically break even or lose money" because of the slump in demand and prices. Room rates in the off-season average between $90-107 per night, but then jump to $200 and more after March 1. "The gap in rates between winter and spring has always been there," added the executive, who asked that her name not be used. "And it always will be."
This economic reality brings no comfort to the hundreds of displaced hurricane victims and the army of contractors who have followed the storm to Bay County. With the annual tourist season less than three weeks off, people who have been temporarily staying in tourist accommodations are being warned that their weekly or monthly rates will soon double, while others have learned that after Feb. 28, their leases will not be renewed at any price. On the other hand, condo owners see Spring Break tourism as an economic lifeline after a winter of lost rental income and unanticipated storm-related repair costs.
To examine these different vantage points, The News Herald talked with a Bay County resident forced from her home by the storm; a contractor working storm damage removal since late October, and a condo owner struggling to avoid foreclosure due to hurricane-related financial losses.
"I was panicking," Parker resident Karen Ramsey Rinck said in a recent interview as she described the terse notification she had just received from the manager of the Beach condo where she and her son have been living since late October. "He said, 'everybody has to leave on the first of March.' I asked if Spring Break was the reason, and he said, 'Yes.' "
A longtime resident of Parker who had worked as a certified nursing assistant at Community Health and Rehabilitation Center in Panama City for the past 21 years, Rinck, 60, awoke on Oct. 11 to find that the hurricane had destroyed her place of work and left her house uninhabitable. Nevertheless, she faced the uncertain future with steadfast optimism.
"I thought I was blessed because my home was still standing for the most part," Rinck said.
But she and her son could not tough it out there.
"We had a lot of roof and water damage that turned into mold," she said. "Our insurance adjustor told us we could not stay in the house," because of the lack of power and water damage.
Through a family member, they found an available two-bedroom Beach condo that charged $1,800 per month and moved in four days after the storm. The stiff rent was offset somewhat when the Federal Emergency Management Agency covered the first two weeks of their stay. With her job gone after the closure of the nursing home, Rinck said she has spent much of the past four months commuting daily to her house, searching for contractors, and wrestling with insurance adjustors.
Rinck was able to get several extensions on her lease until the manager's ultimatum in mid-January. Faced with delays in settling her insurance claim and finding contractors to rehabilitate her home, Rinck said the situation was becoming "increasingly desperate." But at the last minute, she connected with an Alabama couple who own a condo in the same complex in which she has been staying. The pair have offered to let Rinck and her son move in during March and April for the same $1,800 rent. By then, she said, her home should be ready for their return.
"Don't call me a storm chaser," Dan Drew said in a husky voice, then chuckled. "Although that's exactly what I do."
The 57-year-old resident of northwest Ohio has a business skill much in demand after natural disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes: he grinds stumps.
"I've been through basically every storm since Hurricane Isabel in 2003," Drew said in a recent interview. "I spent a year working Katrina."
When Hurricane Michael savaged Bay County, Drew was already at work relatively close by. The city of Albany, Georgia had been struck by a major tornado in January 2017, and he had been hired to come back for additional work clearing tree stumps. So once that task was done, Drew headed south on the three-hour trip to Bay County. Here, he found a lot of work, but also a lot of headaches securing a place to stay.
Since the end of October, Drew has driven across the Hathaway Bridge at first light each day to job sites where contractors have hired him to work. His task is to use the grinder's heavy metal circular blade to pulverize tree stumps.
"As a general rule, it can take from 10 minutes to as much as three hours" for each stump, depending on its size, he said. "The [grinding] wheel turns it into a dirt and mulch mixture."
After camping out in a rented Beach condo for a week with an acquaintance, Drew said he was able to locate a unit of his own with a 30-day lease at Panama Dunes. Then, in succession, he passed through a succession of condos and hotels with short leases, paying around $2,000 per month. Drew said that while most condo rental rates were high but reasonable, he found that hotel rates were "astronomical" for the off-season market of contractors and responders.
"The real problem was the availability" of rooms, Drew said. And as for the ones he could find? "It was terrible," he said. "Many were in very poor condition."
After three months of hard work sandwiched by the vexation of finding new accommodations when the current one expired, Drew said his luck finally turned in mid-January. He found a condo on the Beach that had suffered minor damage, but the owners were more than willing to offer a monthly rental of $1,850 and to let him stay until April.
To Jennifer Grant, a Panama City Beach native who now lives in Henderson, Nevada, the two-bedroom unit at Splash Condominiums that she and her late husband, Dan, bought back in 2008 has long been more than just a financial investment.
"This was part of our retirement plan," Grant said in a recent telephone interview. "We thought it would pay for itself and we could sell it and retire in Panama City Beach."
Like many condo investors, the Grants calculated that rental income during each year would generally cover their mortgage payments, insurance premiums and homeowner association fees. For the 10 years prior to Hurricane Michael, the books generally balanced. They were even able to use the condo themselves several times a year.
But after her husband's unexpected death several years ago, Grant said, she has struggled to keep up with the costs of ownership. Still, she has strived to keep the condo, since it is a place of cherished happy memories for her and her young daughter, Ava.
When Hurricane Michael struck, Splash Condominiums, located on the west end of the Beach, suffered only moderate wind damage. But the economic hit to Grant and other condo owners was severe, she said.
One family who had booked the unit for a week had only been there one day when Bay County ordered the mandatory evacuation of the city prior to Michael's arrival. "I put myself in their shoes," Grant said, and refunded them their entire fee. In the weeks that followed, with Bay County under a boil water notice and the Beach under curfew, several other rental prospects also fell through.
During the weeks that followed, Grant opened her unit up to her housekeeper – whose Lynn Haven home had been heavily damaged – and was able to find several short-term tenants paying $40 per night to shelter at the Beach. Her financial losses were significant, Grant said.
Then came a notice from the Splash homeowners association levying a special $2,000 assessment per unit to repair storm damage to the twin buildings' exteriors.
Grant said she is looking forward to Spring Break and the 2019 tourist season for the same reason as all other property owners. "People who own rental properties will need to make up their losses in Spring Break and summer income," she said.
Perhaps surprisingly, neither the Bay County refugee, nor the contractor, nor the condo owner were inclined to cast blame for their different experiences. All three indicated an understanding of the other side's plight.
"I understand that people on the Beach have to make money," Rinck said.
"The situation is worse for people who lost their homes," Drew said of the scramble to find new lodgings. "I've got a bad predicament, but I've got a choice – I can always go home."
"This is not about being greedy," Grant said. "It's about holding on to what you have."
©2019 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)
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