Washington Post: FEMA's City of Anxiety in Florida

In the wake of Katrina the role of the Government/FEMA has come into question, specifically, now that we in into recovery efforts, how much should the Government help? Today's Washington Post covers the story of "FEMA City" in Charlie ravaged Charlotte County Florida.

"PUNTA GORDA, Fla. -- "Someone killed my dog," sputtered Royaltee Forman, still livid two weeks later.

"They just threw him out the window and hung him with his own leash," he said, convinced that someone broke into his home while he was out. "I mean, what kind of place has this become?"

Forman's place is FEMA City, a dusty, baking, treeless collection of almost 500 trailers that was set up by the federal emergency agency last fall to house more than 1,500 people made homeless by Hurricane Charley, one of the most destructive storms in recent Florida history. The free shelter was welcomed by thankful survivors back then; almost a year later, most are still there -- angry, frustrated, depressed and increasingly desperate.

"FEMA City is now a socioeconomic time bomb just waiting to blow up," said Bob Hebert, director of recovery for Charlotte County, where most FEMA City residents used to live. "You throw together all these very different people under already tremendous stress, and bad things will happen. And this is the really difficult part: In our county, there's no other place for many of them to go."

As government efforts move forward to relocate and house some of the 1 million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast -- including plans to collect as many as 300,000 trailers and mobile homes for them -- officials here say their experience offers some harsh and sobering lessons about the difficulties ahead.

Most troubling, they said, is that while the badly damaged town of Punta Gorda is beginning to rebuild and even substantially upgrade one year after the storm, many of the area's most vulnerable people are being left badly behind.

The hurricane began that slide, destroying hundreds of modest homes and apartments along both sides of the Peace River as it enters Charlotte Harbor, and almost all of Punta Gorda's public housing. Then as the apartments were slowly restored -- a process made more costly and time-consuming because of a shortage of contractors and workers -- landlords found that they could substantially increase their rents in the very tight market.

As a result, the low-income working people most likely to have been displaced by the hurricane are now most likely to be displaced by the recovery, too.

The unhappy consequence is that FEMA City's population has barely declined -- its trailers are occupied by 1,500 check-out clerks, nurse's aides, aluminum siding hangers, landscapers and more than a few people too old, too sick or too upset to work. A not-insignificant number of illegal immigrants and ex-convicts live there as well.

To the county's surprise, Hebert said, finding solutions to their ever-increasing problems is now the biggest and most frustrating part of the entire hurricane recovery effort.

"Having lived through the last year here, this is my advice to New Orleans and the other Gulf Coast towns: Don't make big camps with thousands of people, because it doesn't work," Hebert said. "It takes a bad situation and, for many people, actually makes it worse."

I'm partial to Port Charlotte and Punta Gorta where I spent my junior high school years (35 years ago). After Charlie hit last year I remember being amazed that nothing had changed up to that point. The area was primarily middle to lower income, consisting of many retired and transient worker families.

Then Charlie hit. One year later Punta Gorta is flourishing, so incidently is most of Charlotte County. Many of the people in FEMA city are those who because of the increase of rents/ and general housing costs have no where else to go. In case you haven't heard, Florida - like the rest of the country is having a housing crunch - boom yes, if you already own, crunch if you are needing housing. In fact, to buy even a one bedroom house in Florida, you would have to make almost $80,000 a year - far above the income of people in a "right to work" state. A typical apartment in Florida - 1 bedroom goes for $1200 or more. The average 1 personal income? $25,000 per year.

However, this brings me back to the question, "How long should the Government have to take care of people affected by disaster?" Current law requires 18 months. It's "temporary" housing, not long term, nor was it designed to be. But you might ask, "Is that sufficient?"

The answer is that the Federal Government cannot be the "Daddy Warbucks" that people want it to be, it simply can't. New Orleans has taught us that "Government Dependency" can be deadly, not because the Government is necessarily at fault, but because no matter what liberals think, the Government wasn't designed to "have children".

The great cities and townships of this Country were build by PEOPLE and through their rugged individuality. The State of California - the most liberal today, was built on rugged indivuality and specifically a lack of Government interferance. There comes a time when communities set about to rebuild themselves through private and public investment and fund raising. We have a prior example to look at - the previously most destructive Hurricane, Andrew.

Of all the areas affected by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Homestead took the brunt. For all intents and purposes it was completely distroyed. For months people lived in "Tent Cities", and then into FEMA Trailers. Today the signs are still there, but the city is better than it had ever been. You can read about the before and afterhere written back in 2002, TEN years after. Monumental progress since that terrible date in 1992 has taken place.

The point is that it has only been a year since Charlie and like it or not, things do NOT move on a dime. Rebuiding a City doesn't take a month, or a year - it takes years. It doesn't take ONLY the Government and a ton of money and quite frankly, we don't want Cities rebuilt only by the Government exclusively. Most experts are saying that if New Orleans wants to see rapid rebuild it's going to have to take the effort, first of the Government, specifically with rebuilding the infrastructure, but then primarily of entrenpenuers, business and private investors. They can do it far better than any Government administration can hope to.

In Homestead private investors came in and built affordable housing areas for low income people that far exceeded anything they could have hope or dreamed about before, and more than what the Federal Government could provide.

Whatever the issues in Port Charlotte they will be rectified. After the Katrina/FEMA brouhaha, they are not going to come in and rip these homes from under these people. But sooner or later they are going to have to seek affordable housing and that is really another post all together, but even then private investment, and entrepenuership are going to save the day, not more Government spending.

The latter creates independence, the later dependence.

UPDATE: Related Bob Vila to feature Punta Gorda home built to withstand Category 5 storm

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