Hurricane Charley Victims
FEMA's City of Anxiety in Florida
Saturday, September 17, 2005
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.