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FEMA's City of Anxiety in Florida

About 1,500 people who lost their homes or were already homeless still live in a makeshift mobile home/trailer park run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Charlotte County, Fla., since Hurricane Charley struck last year.
About 1,500 people who lost their homes or were already homeless still live in a makeshift mobile home/trailer park run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Charlotte County, Fla., since Hurricane Charley struck last year. (By Marc S. Kaufman -- The Washington Post)

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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