tampabay.com

Hard times on Easy Street

Recovering from the storm has been difficult in Charlotte County, even for residents with this most ironic address.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published August 7, 2005


PORT CHARLOTTE - The winds subsided and the rain stopped. The news crews packed up their cameras. The president went back to Washington. The governor went back to Tallahassee.

Autumn passed, and then winter. Spring melted into summer. The rest of the world moved on.

But on the 3200 block of Easy Street, like on thousands of other blocks in the storm's path, Hurricane Charley never really left.

* * *

Just past 5 p.m., Marge Umbrino wheels her aging Cadillac into the driveway at 3274 Easy St.

She pours herself a wine cooler - on the rocks - and slides wearily into a kitchen chair. Above her, wires hang from the exposed ceiling. Sheets of drywall lie stacked around the room. Bedsheets double as drapes. The window air conditioner hums, straining in the summer heat.

Too quiet, she thinks. This place is too quiet.

She flips on the television, and the sound of country music skips off the bare, dusty floors.

She glances out the back window toward the pool and enclosed porch that Frank built with his skillful hands. Algae fills the pool. The porch lacks a wall. The windows are shattered. Mold has taken root.

"It was beautiful," she says, her mind fixed somewhere in the past. "It's not the same anymore."

She's talking about the pool. But really, she's talking about Frank.

They met 15 years ago at a bar on Long Island. They married in April 1995, not long after he got out of jail for driving without a valid license. Again.

It was his first marriage, her second. She remembers the first song they danced to that day, remembers how the words seemed appropriate:

I was standing all alone against the world outside

You were searching for a place to hide

The Eagles. Love Will Keep Us Alive.

They left for Florida a few days later.

Frank wasn't a perfect husband. He had that New York temper. He drank a lot. They had fights, plenty of them.

But the good times trumped the bad.

Then, last Aug. 13, Hurricane Charley came. It wrecked the house and destroyed Marge's hair salon. They would have to start again.

They settled with the insurance company for $24,000, figuring Frank, a skilled carpenter, would make the mountain of necessary repairs himself.

Instead, his liver failed. Frank died Sept. 19.

"I lost my house, my business and my husband in a month," says Marge, 52. "The most horrible time in my life. I'm a strong person, and I cried a lot."

She lived in a FEMA trailer beside the shell of her home for nearly eight months. Four of those months, she barely went outside. She passed her days in fits of sleep, watching Golden Girls reruns.

Sometimes, Frank would arrive in her dreams to comfort her, to tell her everything would be okay. Other times, she yelled at him as if he lay beside her:

You left me with a mess, Frank. You took the easy way out.

Along the way, she had to put down Frank's dog, King, a Rottweiler mix that he adored. She petted the mutt as he drifted off, telling him he would see Frank soon, wishing she could see him, too.

Slowly, Marge has pieced her life back together. The salon reopened, and she's back at work. Her 31-year-old son has done small repairs on the house in his spare time, though the insurance money has nearly run out after a new air conditioner, new door, new windows and a bathroom renovation.

She tries to smile and talk bravely.

"I'm young. I can still take a couple of punches from life," she'll say. And then, "Every day, you get a little more strength. I guess."

But she has trouble convincing herself. Like that Eagles song, she's standing all alone again, and she hates it.

"It destroyed my life," she says of the hurricane. "I'm lost."

The lost woman doesn't cook anymore, not like she did when Frank was around. Many nights, she doesn't eat at all.

She sleeps in a sleeping bag atop a futon because the storm ruined her mattresses. She keeps a white candle lit 24 hours a day because her aunt told her it would chase away the black cloud that follows her.

A few feet from the candle, underneath a box of Kleenex, sits a dark wooden container.

Frank's ashes.

She moves the tissues and brushes the dust from the urn. "I feel bad he's in that box," she says, laughing.

But when she turns around, there are tears in her eyes.

* * *

Not so long ago, this spit of land was part of a cattle ranch. The Tamiami Trail cut south on its path from Tampa to Miami, and Port Charlotte was just more rural scenery out the car window.

But in the 1950s, inevitably, developers arrived. They put ads in Life magazine and Reader's Digest, promoting the leisurely life of Port Charlotte to retirees up north.

Developers named one of the first streets Easy Street.

"If you're promoting the sale of retirement homes, Easy Street seems like an ideal choice," said Vernon Peeples, a Charlotte County native and former state legislator.

It worked. The retirees came, and Easy Street turned from an outpost to a vibrant neighborhood.

It was a place where neighbors mowed one another's lawns, where children roamed freely between houses and doors seldom were locked. It was a place where neighbors walked across the street to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas.

They knew each other, looked out for each other.

That was then.

* * *

The old woman sits inside the cramped FEMA trailer, where four generations of her family live under the same roof. It's early afternoon. The sun is baking the sidewalks and bare rooftops.

"Another hell day in paradise," Marge Burke says, looking out the window.

She's 87, with steel-blue eyes, hair as silver as a full moon and a knack for facing the problems of the past year with Zen-like calm.

She and her husband moved to 3251 Easy St. in 1959 from Ohio, becoming one of the street's first residents. They planted an evergreen sapling that first year, and by the time Charley ripped it from the ground, it had grown twice as tall as the house. That's how long Marge has been around.

They raised seven children here, made dear friends here. He died here a decade ago.

She mowed her grass well into her 80s and has survived nearly 50 Florida summers without air conditioning. But the past 12 months have tested even her.

A few feet from the trailer sits what's left of her home. It's a shell now, four walls wrapped around an empty, stripped interior. The hurricane took the roof and drenched the inside with rain. When mold showed up, doctors told her family to get out.

And so, since Thanksgiving, they've called two small FEMA trailers home - Marge, her daughter and son-in-law, her granddaughter and her granddaughter's boyfriend and two great-granddaughters, ages 3 and 6. Mercifully, their two dogs, Socks and Chance, stay outside.

"It's better than living in a tent," Marge says. But her daughter, 52-year-old Betty Bowling, sees little difference.

"I'm tired of camping," she says.

When the family gathers for dinner, only two people can fit at the table. The others crowd the couch, sit on the floor or eat standing up.

The trailer has little storage space, so they stack cans of soup and loaves of bread atop the refrigerator and in every nook and cranny. Even then, they make daily trips to the grocery store.

It's tough to take a bath without getting stuck in the tub, and the bedroom door won't stay shut, so Betty wedges a bottle of chardonnay in front to keep it from opening.

Chances are, the house won't be ready before 2006, thanks to the glacial pace of getting permits and inspections these days. It still needs new floors, new ceilings, new kitchen, a new roof, new electric, new furniture.

If anything, the past year has taught the family about time and how little we all have.

For starters, Marge fell and broke her hip during the first chaotic days after the hurricane. She lay in a hospital bed for five days, proving she wasn't invincible and might not live forever, after all.

In recent months, Betty's daughter, Erica, has begun to talk about getting away from Easy Street and out of Florida. She's thinking of moving to Virginia with her boyfriend and taking along her young girls, Skylar and Lakyn.

Marge and Betty cannot imagine Easy Street without them.

But July brought the worst news.

Betty's 56-year-old husband, Dale, had suffered for months from fatigue. He had no appetite. Strange lumps appeared on his legs and side. They have no health insurance but paid for CAT scans and an ultrasound that gave no answers.

Finally, doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer.

Betty drove Dale to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, where doctors told him the cancer had spread too much. They could only ease the pain.

Dale takes his meals in bed now and has conversations with Betty they're both too young to have.

"I remember when I was 12," Marge Burke says one afternoon in her calm voice. "There was a guy who predicted the world was going to end. Of course, nothing happened. My mother always said you never have more than you can deal with."

Sometimes, it just feels that way.

* * *

Charley left more behind than debris.

Along Easy Street, it brought vandals and peeping Toms. It brought looters to sift through the ruins, thieves to steal bikes and generators, vagrants to live in abandoned homes.

In the 12 months before Charley, Charlotte County sheriff's deputies responded to 22 calls on the 3200 block. Since the hurricane hit on Aug. 13, they have come 50 times.

The calls themselves have grown grimmer: breaking and entering, domestic violence, burglary, drugs. It mirrors a trend across the county.

"We've had a heck of a lot more calls," said sheriff's spokesman Bob Carpenter. "There's a lot of riffraff that's moved down here."

Scam artists and unlicensed contractors passed through. A sexual predator settled in the neighborhood.

Nearly half of the houses on the 3200 block have sold. More than a half-dozen sit empty. One was bulldozed. The grass grows knee-high in some yards. An old toilet and bathtub sit near a curb.

Some local high school students have taken to calling this once tranquil street "the ghetto."

The old-timers like Marge Burke barely recognize it anymore. The newcomers, well, this is the only Easy Street they've ever known.

* * *

They came from Michigan in May 2004 with all the pretty postcard versions of Florida in their minds.

Dawn and Jayson Wilson, both 34, dragged along their four children, ages 9 to 15, thinking that a childhood in paradise might suit them.

They settled in North Port to be near Dawn's father. She had found him on the Internet after a lifetime of wondering who and where he was. He invited her down, and they rekindled a relationship, but it quickly soured.

The Wilsons were on their own again.

They decided to give Florida another chance. They found a house - the first they would ever own together - at 3230 Easy St. It seemed a perfect fit - four bedrooms, two baths, a big back yard, a decent price. They signed a contract.

The closing date: Aug. 17.

Charley hit Aug. 13. It blew out the windows, damaged part of the roof and caused water damage. Mold grew in spots.

The Wilsons refused to buy the house until the owners made repairs. But their lease in North Port had expired.

They ended up at a shabby motel off U.S. 41. The six of them crammed into one room. The toilet broke. Ants and cockroaches roamed free. Savings dwindled, even as Jayson installed water softeners to try to make ends meet.

Weeks passed, and still they waited.

The situation grew so desperate that on the day they were preparing to move into their minivan, the Wilsons called the homeowners and begged to move in early, even if repairs weren't finished.

"That was the most terrifying week of my life," Dawn said. She and Jayson didn't tell the kids how close they came to being homeless.

They settled into the house in November, thinking they had finally found peace. It didn't last.

First came the vandals, then the peeping Toms. Someone shot up their garage with a BB gun. Thieves stole two bikes. Dawn and Jayson heard gunshots one night while they lay in bed. They saw drug deals go down. They saw deputies make arrests.

Now, they keep the curtains drawn, the doors locked. They let the children play only in the fenced back yard. They don't socialize with neighbors.

Jayson keeps a .45-caliber gun under the mattress and a Smith & Wesson 9mm on his hip.

"My friends," he calls them.

"We're kind of in our little prison here," Dawn says. "It's just depressing."

Money got so short one month, the utility company cut off their water. They still haven't paid any principal on their house, only interest. The payments were too high on their van, so they sold it and found another for $2,000. Without air conditioning.

And Dawn lost her food service job because she had to taxi the children to double school sessions after the hurricane.

Speaking of the schools, Dawn hates them. The kids hate them. They say their classmates aren't like the ones in Michigan. They're less friendly, more prone to drugs and sex and other mischief.

One evening, blasting a Ludacris CD out her bedroom window while her parents are away at Wal-Mart, 15-year-old Shalene Wilson stands on the front porch, glancing up and down the street and talking about her Florida experience.

"The level of people here," she says, with all the teenage disgust she can muster, "it's not up to my standards."

Like daughter, like mother.

"I was told it was paradise," Dawn says the next day. "I wish I never came. I've really tried to be positive, but we just hate it. It's a damn shame."

She longs for their old home on 2 acres near Traverse City, Mich. She felt free there. The children could be children there. She aches to find a way back.

Jayson tries to make the best of it. He's working to start a new plastic molding business. At least Florida winters are better than the ones they spent in the Michigan snow.

On a recent Friday evening, Jayson mans his grill. The smell of chicken and steak fills the air. The girls swim in the small pool and play around the back yard. Music drifts from the house. It almost feels like home.

But within reach sits the loaded Smith & Wesson.

* * *

Evenings, the sinking sun casts its orange light across the 3200 block of Easy Street. The neighbors do not visit with one another. The children do not venture from their homes.

Abandoned houses dot the street like black holes, nearly invisible in the gathering darkness. Televisions light a few windows, offering the only signs of life.

Behind the privacy fence at 3230, the Wilsons retreat once again into their home, barricaded against this strange and unfriendly place.

Down the street at 3251, two young girls inside a FEMA trailer brush their teeth in the cramped bathroom, change into pajamas and climb onto the sofa bed to sleep beside their 87-year-old great-grandmother.

A few feet away, inside the same trailer, Betty Bowling slips into the tiny bedroom and curls up next to her dying husband. He puts his legs across hers to ease his discomfort. She wonders sometimes, there in the darkness, how many more days he will wake up beside her and what it will feel like when she's alone.

Across the street at 3274, Marge Umbrino knows exactly what it feels like.

She lies alone on the futon in her living room, lulled to sleep by the glow of the television.

Frank's ashes sit under the Kleenex box a few feet away, and nearby, the white candle, always burning, flickering with the hope of better days.

-- Brady Dennis can be reached at dennis@sptimes.com or 813 226-3386.