Drained by Charley, FEMA Park residents must run again

Published October 24, 2005

PUNTA GORDA - In a state brimming with people weary of hurricanes, some of the weariest live here.

Few places in Florida can match Charlotte County's frustration, exhaustion and misery since Hurricane Charley leveled everything in its path more than a year ago.

Nowhere are those feelings as palpable as inside FEMA Park, a sad, muddy collection of nondescript white mobile homes, hundreds of them that the government erected for the poor and dispossessed.

On Sunday, the park sat mostly empty. If anything, Charley taught a lesson about fleeing early. But the fleeing and the never-ending threat of catastrophe has worn especially hard on the people here.

"I'm tired," said Taaliba Portillo, 27, speaking for all those who have endured the chorus line of storms for the past two summers. She and her boyfriend packed away what they could from their mobile home and then dashed, resigning themselves to running away. Again.

A block away, 21-year-old Sean Smith was leaving, too, with his girlfriend, their 6-year-old son, and his two dogs, Shade and Webo. He packed as many sentimental possessions as he could.

Like so many others, Smith wore a look of weariness and heartache.

"I don't know what to think anymore," he said. "Tired, sad, miserable. You can only go down so far before you've got to go up."

He plans to go up - to Georgia or North Carolina. The hurricanes have tired him and left him a beaten man. He has had enough of paradise.

Across Charlotte County, the scars from Hurricane Charley linger even today. Tattered blue tarps cling to ruined roofs. Concrete slabs sit where houses used to stand. Signs advertise mold removal and house repairs. Businesses sit empty more than year after Charley shut them down. Entire streets remain abandoned, ghosts of the neighborhoods they once were and constant reminders of how quickly a hurricane can alter lives.

But nothing quite compares to the scene inside FEMA Park. Elsewhere, there are signs of lives mending, of the slow march back toward normalcy. Not here. This place has not changed, and the people who call it home still struggle now as much as they ever did.

Hurricane Wilma's impending approach on Sunday gave them only more headaches and worry. By early evening, the rain already was falling. Dark clouds gathered overhead, adding more gloom to a place all too familiar with it.

The park was almost empty but for a few stragglers. Several children played in muddy puddles outside. Several adults packed the last boxes in their cars and drove away. And several people, just too tired or too stubborn to leave, retreated inside.

Scott Adair, 41, was deciding whether to take his wife and two young children to a safer place. He knew staying could prove dangerous, but he had grown so tired of running away.

"I think everyone's buttons are already pushed," said Adair, who had moved his family three times since they lost their Port Charlotte home during Charley. "We don't even know where we're going to go. Where do you go? You just run out of options."

Standing there, waiting on yet another hurricane to come and go and wondering what dread this one might bring, he still managed to squeeze out a drop of optimism. Which, considering the scenery, was impressive enough.

"You've just got to think," he said, "that better days are coming."