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Time's up for Charley refugees

Forty-one trailers still dot the Punta Gorda park FEMA set up after the 2004 storm. Officials say they must be empty tonight — really, this time.

By LANE DEGREGORY
Published October 30, 2006


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PUNTA GORDA — It has come down to this: a pile of sneakers, a box of hair ties, a framed poster of the Mona Lisa.

By noon Monday, Lakisha Washington had boxed up almost everything else in her FEMA trailer.

“Another carload and I think we’re done,” she told her daughter Corjaleet, 7. “I can’t believe we’re really getting out of here.”

Just in time. Officials plan to close the Federal Emergency Management Agency park off Interstate 75 today, almost two years after it was set up for refugees of Hurricane Charley. By midnight, they told residents, you have to be out. Workers are scheduled to start removing the trailers Wednesday.

“We’ve already extended the deadline twice, so people are still hoping we’re not serious,” FEMA spokeswoman Mildred Acevedo said. “But this is it.”

Despite the deadline, about half the 100 people still in the trailer park on Monday didn’t have plans to leave. They had been looking for somewhere else to live, they said, but couldn’t find anywhere they could afford.

“I can’t even imagine what we’re going to do,” said Heather Badgwell, 26, who shares a trailer with her fiance and their infant son. “We don’t have a car. We can’t even afford a phone. How can we come up with first and last month’s rent plus a deposit for water and electricity?”

Of the 551 trailers that originally lined the dusty tract of land beside the county jail, only 41 were left. Workers already had torn down the playground and uprooted street signs. Trash littered the empty lots. At midday, it was so quiet you could hear aluminum cans blowing across the gravel roads.

Washington, her husband and five children have lived in the FEMA village since it opened in November 2004. After Hurricane Charley toppled their house, they lived in a motel room and church shelter for more than a month before getting the government-issue trailer.

They have saved money and paid off debts, and now they’re better off financially than they were before the storm. Last week, they finally found a four-bedroom house in North Port where they hope they can afford the rent: $1,000 a month.

“I’m so happy just to get out,” said Washington, 33. “I don’t know what the rest of these folks are going to do.”
Washington’s best friend, Anita King, lives a couple of trailers away with her two children, ages 5 and 7. She was given government vouchers to find Section 8 housing, but couldn’t find any in Charlotte County.

“I got nowhere to go. But I ain’t worried,” King told Washington. “They can’t just come in here and put us out on the streets. So I’m going to just stay right here.”

Federal and county officials have been talking about a way to let the county buy the trailers, or give them to some remaining residents. But as of Monday afternoon, they had no firm plans for what to do with the folks who were left.

Many of the stragglers are elderly or disabled, or just too poor to be able to afford to get out.

When Wednesday rolls around, FEMA’s Acevedo said, “We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Badgwell has been dreading that day for months. She stood on the stoop of her trailer Monday, smoking while her baby slept, worrying about where they would go, what would happen to them.

“They told us if we’re not out, they’d just take all our stuff with the trailer,” she said.

Badgwell and her fiance have been living in the FEMA village almost since it opened. Their 7-month-old son is disabled. He was born without a fibula in his right leg, with a deformed right foot and only two toes. Badgwell can’t find a day care to take him, so she can’t work.

Her fiance earns $8 an hour washing dishes at the IHOP. They don’t have a car, so he rides his bike 45 minutes each way to work. He packs groceries in his backpack each day before pedaling home.

“When Hurricane Charley destroyed his house, he was paying $450 a month rent,” Badgwell said. “After the landlord rebuilt it, he was asking $900. Everything around here just got too expensive. We can’t find anything less than $600 a month.”

For the first 18 months, federal officials let people live in the trailers rent-free. Badgwell and her fiance have been paying $366 a month since March. Their water, power and gas bills come to about $500 a month, she said. They have no savings, no insurance.

“I don’t see any way we can get out of here in 24 hours,” Badgwell said. “We even talked to some people at the homeless shelter. They said I can come with the baby, but since we’re not married, my fiance can’t come with us.

We want to get married. We’ve been planning it forever.”

But they don’t have money for a marriage license.

“I try not to worry. But I really don’t know what we’ll do,” Badgwell said. “I just hope FEMA doesn’t have the heart to throw all these families out with no place to go.”

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

[Last modified October 30, 2006, 22:18:01]


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