PANAMA CITY — Chris Fillyaw just wants to get out.
Since Tuesday the Panama City man, his brother and his mother have been at Northside Elementary School, set up by the American Red Cross as a shelter for victims of Hurricane Michael.
He hasn’t enjoyed his stay much so far.
“I was sleeping outside since Tuesday because it was so hot, but then yesterday they told me I couldn’t sleep outside,” Fillyaw said outside the school Saturday morning. “People sweat all night in the hallways … you can just see the beads of sweat on people.”
Fillyaw is one of hundreds of people living in the shelter since the hurricane ripped through Bay County, damaging or destroying many homes in its wake. Some residents say the shelter has been poorly staffed so far, with basic necessities like proper food, water, working toilets, beds and medication coming slowly, or not at all.
“It’s unsanitary conditions … unhealthy living conditions, that’s what bothers me the most,” said Cynthia Larson, a certified nurse practitioner, who has stayed at the shelter all week because the hurricane severely damaged her house near Rutherford High School. “It is a certified shelter supposedly … but it is not.”
Larson said that in the days since the shelter opened, many of the toilet have clogged, overflowing with human waste that hasn’t been cleaned up.
“Children are running around barefoot … someone is going to pick up E. coli (an intestinal bacteria)," Larson said.
Larson, who also has terminal cancer, said Red Cross workers told her she’s the only person at the shelter with any kind of medical license.
“There is no defibrillator here … I’m the only person here that I know who can perform CPR,” Larson said. “There’s no special food for diabetics or cardiac patients … they were asking me the other day if I could write prescriptions for some of these patients.”
Attempts to reach Red Cross officials for comment Saturday were unsuccessful. A Red Cross worker at the shelter said she was not allowed to speak with the media. She also said media were not allowed to walk through the halls of the shelter, but could talk to people sitting outside.
In the lobby of the school on Saturday morning, the stinging odor of human waste was in the air. An elderly shelter resident could be heard complaining to a Red Cross worker about the uncleanliness of the bathrooms. Rows of people on cots that lined both sides of hallways in the building were also visible.
A Red Cross shelter worker, who declined to give her name because she wasn’t allowed to speak with the media, said there were 300 people at the school, but it had housed as many as 600 hurricane survivors. She said the Red Cross has three shelters in Panama City and 27 across all hurricane-impacted areas, with a capacity of 6,000 people.
The shelher worker said there was no timeline for how long the shelters would be open.
“The way they’ve treated us, I’m not going to continue to donate,” Fillyaw said of Red Cross.
Fillyaw said portable toilets had only recently arrived at the shelter. And, he said, everyone had to sleep on the floor for the first two or three nights at the shelter.
Food and water supplies had improved, he said, but still weren't great.
Fillyaw said that on Friday, the Red Cross grilled burgers and hot dogs at the shelter for military personnel and other volunteers. Shelter residents weren’t allowed any of the grilled food, though, and were given tortillas with a little cheese in them, he said.
“It wasn’t even good cheese, it was block cheese that wouldn’t even melt,” Fillyaw said with a laugh. “At least they could have grilled all that other food farther away from us so we didn’t have to smell it.”
Susan Schneider, living at the shelter with her husband, Henry, and five children, said the food has been sub-par.
“My kids barely ate the tortillas with the cheese in the middle,” Schneider said. “We’re not dealing, not too good at all.”
Schneider said the family had been at the shelter since Tuesday. They had been living at the Aqua View Motel in Panama City Beach for the last month, but can’t return now that Henry Schneider has no income. Schneider said he’s a mechanic at a local automotive shelter.
“I haven’t been able to contact anyone at my work,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to go back to work.”
The family had to sleep on the floor the first few nights, but have since received cots.
“Things are getting better,” Schneider said. “They are stepping things up now.”
Fillyaw said he would much rather take his family to his grandmother’s home in Mississippi, but has no vehicle to get there. Fillyaw said he’s tried to find a way to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get some kind of voucher for transport.
“We’ve gotten no information on what FEMA’s doing,” he said. “I don’t need money, I just need a way out of here.”