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Cramped quarters

Two years after Hurricane Charley, some storm victims still haven't escaped a FEMA trailer city.

Published June 3, 2006

[Times photos: William Dunkley]
Evelyn Parker, 17, left, and a man who would give his name only as Junebug, center, visit Daniel Peak, 16, at his trailer in a FEMA temporary trailer park in Punta Gorda. “That is all it is around here — fighting and robberies,” Peak said

Emmanuel Washington, left, 4, leaps onto a bed as his brother Joseph, 9, and sister Corjaleet, 7, watch TV in their FEMA trailer.
Lakisha Washington, 33, says she is struggling to find a home in their price range for her husband, Isaac, and their five children. “I was one of the first families who got here and I’m still here,” she says.

PUNTA GORDA - A cloud of white dust rises from the sand road of FEMA's trailer city as a U-Haul van pulls out with a screech of wheels. Down the street, a frustrated mother of five sits in front of a computer in her trailer searching for a housing grant and a way out. In another trailer, a 61-year-old waitress packs up her belongings to move to South Carolina this weekend.

As the 2006 hurricane season gets under way, many residents here are still trying to figure out how to get out of this mini-city that emerged after Hurricane Charley in November 2004.

A good many have left. Of the 551 trailers that once sat on 90 acres of parched grassland between cow pastures and a county jail, FEMA has removed 350. Only 165 are still inhabited. By September, ready or not, those remaining will be forced to leave.

But the lessons learned here have convinced many that this experiment in post-storm living is not the best way to shelter homeless evacuees. Emergency leaders say trailer cities end up with the same social ills often found in large-scale public housing, problems federal officials have tried to eradicate over the past decade. The large tracts of land needed also are usually not close to town centers, further isolating people from the services they need.

"In the beginning, this was an adventure in living,'' said Bob Hebert, director of recovery for Charlotte County, standing before a ghost town of trailers and a pile of discarded street signs with names like Alpha and Zeta. "But after a while, it got old. Drug raids. Prostitution. Everything you can imagine, it's going on out here. It's not a good environment.''

FEMA officials agree that in the future they will likely provide much smaller communities of trailer homes. A White House panel even suggested in February that the trailers should not be the "default means" of providing housing to those left homeless by a hurricane.

"The larger group sites are harder to supervise in terms of security,'' said Dasha Castillo, a FEMA spokesperson. "That's part of the lessons learned."

Hundreds of thousands still live in them, though. Hurricane evacuees from Texas to Florida are now living in 117,315 trailers provided by FEMA, many of them in front yards or driveways of residents who are fixing up their homes. Others are grouped together at sites, including the 573-trailer community of 1,500 residents near Baton Rouge, now the biggest of the trailer cities.

Louisiana now has the largest concentration of FEMA trailers leased to storm victims: 70,582. The federal agency still has 2,725 trailers leased in Florida, down from a peak of 17,166.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 created tent cities in Miami. But Punta Gorda in Charlotte County was FEMA's first experiment in large-scale temporary housing for hurricane victims. At its height, 1,500 people called the site home, dubbing it FEMAville or Charleyville. At the time, it was considered the largest hurricane relief site ever. Located 10 miles from the center of Punta Gorda, a town of 17,168, far from any public transportation and right next to well-travelled Interstate 75, FEMA's experiment in temporary housing has been rife with crime. Even though their numbers have dwindled, some of those who are left hesitate to venture outside their trailers.

"I've felt unsafe since the day I first moved here," said Judy Dudley, a 61-year-old widow who was moving to South Carolina to live near her children this weekend. "I'm just leery."

Since the trailer park opened in November 2004, police have responded to 3,527 calls for service, including 204 domestic disturbances, 73 burglaries, 19 assaults and five rapes, according to the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office.

"You've got every element of life you can probably think of in here,'' said Carmen Riggs, 57, a disabled Vietnam veteran who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. "This is a community of people pushed into living together and they don't necessarily like it. There's nothing for the kids to do."

As he spoke, a handful of teens, including a girl who got out of jail four weeks ago, gathered across the street and spoke of a fight the night before over a burglary at someone's trailer. Another fight was expected later that night, they said.

"I've seen people slapped around, girls running down the street screaming and hollering and saying 'help,' people breaking into other trailers,'' said Dale Munoz, a 24-year-old cook, as he helped move his mother, handicapped sister and their 14 cats into a new trailer because their former trailer had mold seeping through the walls. "We just try to stick to ourselves, but it's kind of scary.''

As people have moved out , however, crime has gone down. In November of last year, police responded to the site 307 times. In May, they only had 46 calls.

Most of the residents left recently, particularly after FEMA started charging rent in May. But many struggled to find affordable housing in the wake of the frenetic building boom that the hurricanes produced. Though the market has begun to soften, housing costs are still well above what they were before Charley punched through Punta Gorda.

Lakisha Washington, 33, a mother of five, has been struggling to find a home in her price range.

With just three months left until they must move out, Washington, and her husband, Isaac, a drywall subcontractor, have asked FEMA if they can buy the trailer they live in and move it elsewhere. They almost purchased a home several times, but each time the deal fell through for a variety of reasons.

"I can't wait until it's my turn," said Washington, whose five children range in age from 1 to 11 years old. "It's so overwhelming when you see, oh shucks, this family got a place, and that family got a place. Okay, they're gone and they're gone. I was one of the first families who got here and I'm still here."

Hebert, the Charlotte County official, said FEMA wouldn't let county officials set up a station with voluntary agencies to help residents find housing until earlier this year. The fenced community has a 24-hour security guard and police presence.

"In the immediate need, this was good, but what was lacking was an exit strategy to get people placed in the community,'' Hebert said.

FEMA officials said they approved the request as soon as they received it. Castillo said in an e-mail that FEMA regularly met with residents to make sure their plans were progressing.

Since the county station was set up, however, and with help from a $1.3-million grant from Gov. Jeb Bush's hurricane relief fund, officials have been able to help some 250 residents find homes, Hebert said.

The effort continues to help those that remain, but Hebert said he suspects about 100 people will not leave until they're forced. By law, FEMA can only provide housing assistance for 18 months. They extended that deadline until September by charging rent.

"You got some people in here who are essentially squatters,'' Hebert said. "You know they're going to stay here till you drag them out.''

[Last modified June 3, 2006, 06:11:37]

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