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Terry Yager
September 20th, 2005, 12:17 PM
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FEMA's City of Anxiety in Florida

By Marc Kaufman

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- "Someone killed my dog," sputtered Royaltee Forman, still livid two weeks later.

"They just threw him out the window and hung him with his own leash," he said, convinced that someone broke into his home while he was out. "I mean, what kind of place has this become?"

Forman's place is FEMA City, a dusty, baking, treeless collection of almost 500 trailers that was set up by the federal emergency agency last fall to house more than 1,500 people made homeless by Hurricane Charley, one of the most destructive storms in recent Florida history. The free shelter was welcomed by thankful survivors back then; almost a year later, most are still there -- angry, frustrated, depressed and increasingly desperate.

"FEMA City is now a socioeconomic time bomb just waiting to blow up," said Bob Hebert, director of recovery for Charlotte County, where most FEMA City residents used to live. "You throw together all these very different people under already tremendous stress, and bad things will happen. And this is the really difficult part: In our county, there's no other place for many of them to go."

As government efforts move forward to relocate and house some of the 1 million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast -- including plans to collect as many as 300,000 trailers and mobile homes for them -- officials here say their experience offers some harsh and sobering lessons about the difficulties ahead.

Most troubling, they said, is that while the badly damaged town of Punta Gorda is beginning to rebuild and even substantially upgrade one year after the storm, many of the area's most vulnerable people are being left badly behind.

The hurricane began that slide, destroying hundreds of modest homes and apartments along both sides of the Peace River as it enters Charlotte Harbor, and almost all of Punta Gorda's public housing. Then as the apartments were slowly restored -- a process made more costly and time-consuming because of a shortage of contractors and workers -- landlords found that they could substantially increase their rents in the very tight market.

As a result, the low-income working people most likely to have been displaced by the hurricane are now most likely to be displaced by the recovery, too.

The unhappy consequence is that FEMA City's population has barely declined -- its trailers are occupied by 1,500 check-out clerks, nurse's aides, aluminum siding hangers, landscapers and more than a few people too old, too sick or too upset to work. A not-insignificant number of illegal immigrants and ex-convicts live there as well.

To the county's surprise, Hebert said, finding solutions to their ever-increasing problems is now the biggest and most frustrating part of the entire hurricane recovery effort.

"Having lived through the last year here, this is my advice to New Orleans and the other Gulf Coast towns: Don't make big camps with thousands of people, because it doesn't work," Hebert said. "It takes a bad situation and, for many people, actually makes it worse."

Hebert was referring to the growing family problems, vandalism and criminal activity at the site, but even more to the deadline looming over FEMA City. By regulation, federal emergency shelter only lasts 18 months after a disaster is declared, and in Charlotte County the emergency period will end on Feb. 13. By then, everyone is supposed to be out of the trailers.

The deadline can sometimes be extended, but FEMA City site manager Roger Larson said no extensions are currently planned in Florida. In fact, more than 50 trailers have been taken out of FEMA City since Katrina hit, all headed to Mississippi and Louisiana. The prospect of forced evictions is on everyone's minds.

"Personally, I think there will be riots here if they try to evict people," said Tiffanie Weygart, a high school junior who was spending time last week with some friends on the otherwise-deserted main street of FEMA City, her family's home for most of this year. "We've got old people, we've got a lot of new babies. Where are they supposed to go?"

FEMA City is about 10 miles from Punta Gorda, its rows of white trailers covering 64 acres between the county jail and Interstate 75. The trailers are rent-free, but evacuees must pay for utilities.

The contrast to Punta Gorda, a damaged but pretty waterfront town with many historic homes, is extreme. About 100 miles south of Tampa Bay, Punta Gorda is the only incorporated city in Charlotte County (population 140,000). It was a sleepy place by South Florida standards until Charley came in and performed its version of urban renewal.

"You almost hate to say this because of the difficulties so many people have had, but Charley tore down some buildings that needed to come down and cleared areas for much higher kinds of uses," said City Manager Howard Kunik.

An old, damaged Holiday Inn on the town's waterfront, for instance, has been demolished and will be replaced with an $80 million condominium-hotel complex, and other upscale projects are moving forward. Many residents are excited by the changes, but others -- especially the poor and some in Punta's Gorda's long-standing African American neighborhood -- worry they will be permanently priced out of their old home town.

Those fears were stoked last month when the city made clear that it plans to tear down a public housing complex on the waterfront to make way for much higher-income people.

"That land was just too valuable to have poor people on it," said community leader Isaac Thomas. He said that the local government is trying to help him and other black leaders save some of the modest but historic homes in the African-American East End, but that "it's a really uphill fight."

This uneven recovery started on a far more promising note. The Federal Emergency Management Agency got generally high marks for its response to Hurricane Charley -- and three other Florida hurricanes last fall -- and that included the quick construction of the trailer city.

Tons of gravel, sand and crushed shells were trucked in to build up a low-lying meadow, and electrical and sewer lines were quickly laid. Officials say that last Christmas season, many homes were cheerfully lighted, and a sense of relief and thanks prevailed.

Today, that cheer is gone. That gritty soil makes the south Florida sun even hotter, and few people venture outside except to go to their cars. There are no trees, no shrubs, and only two small playgrounds for several hundred children.

Teenagers have been especially hard-hit -- drug use, vandalism, break-ins and fights are widespread. Young people regularly call FEMA City a prison.

The troubles got so bad in the spring that the entire camp was fenced in, a county police substation was set up, and armed security guards were stationed at the one point where residents were allowed to enter and exit. Even with that, the number of calls to the county sheriff's office was at an all-time high last month -- 257 calls that resulted in 78 police reports, many of them involving domestic violence, fights, juvenile delinquency and vandalism. In January, there were just 154 calls and 40 official actions.

Some of the vandalism has proven costly. Even after the expanded police deployment, FEMA officials said they had to spend almost $20,000 recently to cover switches on the street lights because young people were so frequently turning them off.

FEMA site manager Larson acknowledged the problems, but he said they should not overshadow the successes.

Providing shelter for so many people is a mammoth and expensive undertaking, he said, and many families have used the time to save money to pay the three-months' rent usually required upfront by landlords. In the past two weeks, he added, FEMA City has experienced its first population decline since opening in November.

"We know the rental market is very tough out there, but we expect our tenants to make at least three calls a month about new housing, and some are succeeding," he said.

But many are not. FEMA reports that one year after the four Florida storms, it is still providing 7,640 mobile homes or trailers for displaced people, 1,056 of them in Charlotte County. Both statewide and in Charlotte, that means almost half of the people who needed temporary FEMA shelter after the storms still rely on it.

Melissa Frey, who posts grocery prices at a local Winn-Dixie market, is one of them, and she watched with dread from her FEMA City doorway last week as another mobile home was hauled away. She said she has been looking for an apartment for herself and her 2-year-old daughter, with no luck. The stress of the hurricane and the aftermath led to a split with her husband and the loss of his income, and so she barely has enough money to cover expenses without paying rent.

"This is no way to live, and I just wish I could move out," she said. She lives a stone's throw from the main security post, but she still regularly finds her tires flattened by nails that she blames on vandals. "But I'm really worried about what's coming in February, and so are many other people here."

Others are angry.

"Basically, Charlotte County would be happy to see us all go," said Forman, the resident whose dog was strangled. "They think they don't need us, and they really don't want us." Adding to his embitterment, the police ruled that the dog had thrown itself out the window, a conclusion his neighbors greeted with disbelief.

With the constant troubles at FEMA City and the increased tensions throughout the county caused by its housing crisis, Charlotte County Sheriff's Office spokesman Bob Carpenter said his department has had a real education since Charley. It's hard-won knowledge, he said, that they will share with Hancock County, Miss., one of the hardest-hit areas of the Gulf Coast.

"We're sending some officers over there," he said. "We know what's going to happen, while they don't have a clue."

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So the PowersThatBe see Hurricane Charley as A Good Thing, since it blew down all the poor people's housing, to make room for new condos and High-End Hotels...N'awlinz doesn't stand a chance in the wake of Katrina...

Well, there's always Beale Street, I guess. I've never been made to feel unwelcome in Memphis.

--T

Terry Yager
September 20th, 2005, 12:35 PM
I've never visited New Orleans, but I've always wanted to. It's just that I've heard so many horror stories from other hobos that I was always afraid to show my own face there. The joint is already one big tourist trap, so I wonder what's to become of the poor people from there now that they've been displaced (probably permanently)? Po'folk are what made the city famous, having spawned Jazz, Ragtime, Dixieland, and Blues, but there's no place there for them now.

--T

mbbrutman
September 20th, 2005, 07:56 PM
I have mixed feelings about the entire mess.

On one hand, nobody should have to watch their worldy possessions get washed away. And nobody should be stuck in a no-mans land with food and water being scarce, armed thugs roaming the streets, etc. And people shouldn't die waiting for rescue in a civilized country. Especially people who can't get help on their own.

On the other hand, this has been waiting to happen for years. The city leaders knew damn well that their levees wouldn't hold in a big storm, and being 10 feet below sea level they should have done something about it decades ago. The leaders of the entire region are at fault for just wishing the elephant wasn't in the room instead of dealing with it.

People should have evacuated. And while we're at it, the city could have done more to evacuate people who couldn't get out on their own. But ultimately, if somebody tells you the train is coming, you get you ass off the tracks before it hits you.

To compensate for the abysmal federal response (which was just slightly worse than the state and local response) the Bush administration is going to throw money around like there is no tomorrow. The problem is, the money doesn't exist. It's going to come out of other programs. I don't particularly like paying for repeated, avoidable mistakes, and I don't know why people think it's the responsibility of the federal government to rebuild their homes. The sea will take it back again .. this applies to people living in all of those beautiful places in Florida too. You live in a scenic and wonderful place. Except for the occasional storms which threaten to wipe your existence away. I choose to live in a place with fewer natural calamities, but it's boring. Why do I have to keep subsidizing rebuilding efforts?

Watch .. this winter when it's 30 below in MN (which is usual for a few weeks of the year) and natural gas prices are up 50 to 70% again, nobody is going to be bailing out the stiffs freezing their butts off up here. We're going to pay for the oil and natural gas to heat our homes, and there won't be a federal intervention for the high prices. But we live here, thats a choice we made, and we're prepared to live with it. I wish other regions would take a similar view ...

CP/M User
September 23rd, 2005, 05:00 PM
Interesting to read the initial statement.

For some reason it makes me think about some of the Hollywood Movies
like Independance Day, which today have really showing their age (it's
just another disaster involving alien scum from a nearby galaxy! ;-)

But yeah a Hurricane is much different thing again, an act of nature, yet
people have crumbled under the pressures from, which is why I think
about those Fantasy movies & how people would fall.

Mankind does have it's weaknesses & it makes me wonder that with all
the pressures which surround us, how volunerable is mankind exactly?

CP/M User.

Terry Yager
September 23rd, 2005, 06:36 PM
The quote by the City Manager evoked in me the urge to kill (not an uncommon urge with me), and I don't even have to live there. I mean, he's actually glad that the low-cost housing was blown away to make room for a "higher" use of the land...

--T

Terry Yager
September 23rd, 2005, 06:42 PM
If there's such a thing as an up-side to a hurricane, a friend of mine owns seven houses in South Carolina, which can best be described as "Handyman Specials" (ok, so they're dumps). The value of those properties have more than tripled in recent weeks, as a million displaced victems of Katrina seek greener pastures, so my friend is now solvent again, after teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for many years.

--T

CP/M User
September 23rd, 2005, 07:57 PM
When it comes to disasters, I just cannot understand why New Orleans was put where they put it. I mean most of it is situated below Sea Level. Surely that's asking for trouble. And then most of the people who were caught in that Hurricane didn't want to leave their homes?!?

Sure they may have the best drainage system in the world (to keep the water out), though the freak rush of water would certainally change that.

CP/M User.

carlsson
September 25th, 2005, 01:18 PM
There was a feature from the FEMA City in Florida even on Swedish TV evening news, pointing out the situation and trouble in that relatively small trailer park compared to what it will be like in the area Katrina swept away.

At least people living along the coast seem to have learned the lesson and a lot of people escaped the Houston area, fearing the next hurricane Rita to hit them. Thankfully it seem to have taken a route right inbetween of the urbanized areas and was weakened when it hit the coast, so no really extreme casualities.

I'm happy to live in a part of the world quite safe from nature disasters: storms never turn into hurricanes, no big earthquakes, only medium sized floods, no extreme dry periods, no epidemias and so on. Even in winter time, temperature rarely drops below -25 C. Maybe the biggest threat is if one of the outdated nuclear reactors on the other side of the bay (Baltic countries, Russia, Poland) would blow up and wind is in the wrong direction.

carlsson
September 25th, 2005, 01:27 PM
When it comes to disasters, I just cannot understand why New Orleans was put where they put it. I mean most of it is situated below Sea Level. Surely that's asking for trouble.
I think it dates back several hundred of years. Someone built a fortress, a mansion or something else on dry land, and people moved there. To get a plot of dry land was expensive. People had learned how to drain the sea, and it was much cheaper to build on the flood plains. From there, the city expands over the years, and noone questions the idea to drain and build; at least not compared to the land price.

It is kind of similar to when they bring down a 10 floor building to raise a 35 floor building so more people can stay at the same place. I suppose a really strong hurricane could bring down a skyscraper too, if it wasn't for the fact that hurricanes get their energy from the ocean and weaken when they go across dry land.

CP/M User
September 25th, 2005, 03:33 PM
"carlsson" wrote:

> It is kind of similar to when they bring down a 10 floor building to raise
> a 35 floor building so more people can stay at the same place. I
> suppose a really strong hurricane could bring down a skyscraper too, if
> it wasn't for the fact that hurricanes get their energy from the ocean
> and weaken when they go across dry land.

Our Cyclones in the North End of Australia (up in the Tropics) certainally
work in the same fashion, by gaining strength in the Ocean & slowing
down over land.

Out of the Cyclones the North end gets many of those hardly cause any
trouble - though there have been disasters, which is why buildings up
there get reinforcements.

The Tracey Cyclone on Christmas Day (1973 I think it was) had a huge
impact on Darwin, since then I think there's only being 1 more Cyclone of
Simular strength (2-3 years back I think it was in).

CP/M User.

Terry Yager
September 25th, 2005, 07:21 PM
At one time, the port at the mouth of the Mississippi was probably the most important single point in all of North America, and owning it was of vast strategic value (commercial and military), so it's only natural that civilization would spring up there, in spite of the unlivable conditions. It's still pretty important today, but now we have highways, railroads & airports everywhere, so America is no longer completely dependant on it's river systems.

--T