November 26, 2004

Thousands Still Homeless From Fla. Storms

FORT PIERCE, Fla. - Sarah Mason's home, which she bought with tips from cleaning other houses, started leaking during Hurricane Frances. Then came Hurricane Jeanne. Mason lost about everything, and she had no insurance. The four hurricanes that slammed Florida this year forced 252,000 residents to ask for federal help because their homes were damaged or destroyed.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to provide temporary homes for at least 10,000 families - the equivalent of rebuilding a city the size of Fort Pierce.

The agency has already placed nearly 8,500 families in travel trailers or mobile homes. But mold and other problems are surfacing now, and about 100 new victims call for help daily, some adding their names to waiting lists for housing.

FEMA officials had pushed to find temporary homes for all who needed them by Thanksgiving, but the task was formidable. In previous disasters, FEMA provided temporary housing for only a few hundred families. Now, it houses hundreds of families a day, including a record 721 families on Wednesday, the day before the Thanksgiving goal.

"We'd like to move much faster, too, but this is an unprecedented disaster," said FEMA deputy coordinating officer Brad Gair. "This is a huge scale, and we're learning as we go, changing the process. We're just trying to do whatever it takes to get the job done right now."

The hurricanes left few areas of the state untouched. Hurricane Charley tore into southwest Florida and across the state. Then Frances crept ashore along the southeastern coast before lumbering to the Gulf Coast. Ivan lashed the Panhandle. And finally Jeanne, which battered many of the same areas as Frances did.

The storm streak destroyed more than 25,000 homes in Florida and caused major damage in more than 40,000, according to the Red Cross. Some homes were obliterated; others lost huge chunks of their roofs and were flooded by incessant rain. Some whole neighborhoods were destroyed.

Most communities will remain intact through the rebuilding. FEMA has parked thousands of 32- by-8-foot trailers next to tarp-covered homes so families can stay sheltered while overseeing their homes' repairs.

But in other areas, entire neighborhoods must be condemned and new ones created to house the homeless. Near the Punta Gorda airport, a community of 350 three-bedroom mobile homes has been erected on a dusty gravel lot. Families are still moving in more than three months after Charley hit.

Liz Rogers, who is seven months pregnant, stayed at her apartment until three weeks ago, when the mold began crawling up the walls. She said the property owner refused to make any repairs.

"That's why so many people don't have places to live, why everybody's out of a home now. The landlords don't want to spend any money to fix anything," said Rogers, who moved into a FEMA trailer with her husband and a family friend whose home was demolished.

Sarah Mason's family received a more temporary solution. Mason and her grandchildren, ages 11, 13, and 15, are living in one travel trailer among about 20 on a parking lot. The improvised neighborhood has a small grassy area with a picnic bench, 24-hour security and matching front stoops.

"When you have nothing, anything is better than nothing," Mason said.

The trailers are meant to provide a short-term solution - for as long as 18 months - until a better option is found or a family's home is repaired. But for some areas, the future could bring new problems.

Rural and poor communities like Pahokee, Arcadia and Wauchula lack the booming housing market that should speed recovery in harder-hit coastal areas like Punta Gorda. Finding affordable homes and rentals was a challenge there before the storms, and with so many homes damaged and destroyed, the search will become that much harder.

Many families don't have the resources to start over.

FEMA's Gair said no one would be turned out of their trailers after 18 months if they have nowhere to go.

"Not everyone will be a success story," he said. "But for anyone we can help, it's that much better."


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