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FEMA's City of Anxiety in Florida
Many Hurricane Charley Victims Still Unsure of Next Step

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

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."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company