Many Florida Families Still Struggling as New Hurricane Season Nears

May 18, 2007

Terri Rose was living comfortably with her four children when 2004’s Hurricane Frances ripped a hole in the family’s roof. A few weeks later, Hurricane Jeanne soaked everything. Their home was condemned, then demolished.

Two years later, Rose and two of her children, including a 12-year-old autistic son, live in a rented town house in Riviera Beach while they wait for their home to be rebuilt with money she saved, some from insurance and help from charities.

“It’s just been overwhelming with so many expenses. It’s been really hard, especially as a single parent,” said the 48-year-old Rose, who works with developmentally disabled children. “I’m just trying to stay afloat, trying not to become a statistic and be homeless.”

Thousands of Floridians faced the same obstacles after eight hurricanes that hit or brushed by the state in 2004 and 2005 either destroyed or rendered homes uninhabitable. The devastation left the newly homeless with few options as the state’s real estate prices soared and rental units became scarce.

Many, like Rose, moved in with family members, into apartments or government trailers. And while most have regained some normalcy, hundreds remain in limbo, struggling with poverty, depression and hopelessness as another hurricane season bears down.

Rose is luckier than some. She at least had the means to move into an apartment. Some families are still living in cramped trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At the peak, more than 17,000 Florida families were housed in FEMA trailers after the 2004 storm season. Add to that more than 1,900 trailers put into use in the state after the 2005 storms.

But FEMA only provides housing for 18 months after a storm in most cases. The agency has since sold or donated trailers to charities and municipalities, who took over assisting Florida families with trying to rebuild their lives from the 2004 and 2005 storms.

Florida created a disaster housing unit to work with groups across the state to hasten the process, but bureaucracy slowed everything down.

FEMA didn’t release the names of people living in its trailers until three months before the latest move-out deadline in April because of privacy concerns. That left little time to keep them from being homeless.

“Had they gotten the information out sooner, certainly local governments would have had more time to work with these people,” said Roy Dunn, Florida’s disaster housing chief. “That information is very, very important and they went through a lot of effort to protect it.”

FEMA officials say they have learned from the past.

“That is certainly an area that we’re going to examine closely and try to improve on,” said FEMA spokesman Josh Wilson. “We know now more than ever that disaster response can’t be done by the federal government alone. It has to involve communities, local governments and nonprofits.”

Experts say it can take years for people to get back on their feet, as seen in southwest Florida where 2004’s Hurricane Charley devastated the region.

“You could say we’re almost back to a routine lifestyle again,” said Loraine Helber, Charlotte County’s housing coordinator. “It’s been almost three years now. Maybe that gives you an idea of how long it takes to recover.”

However, Helber said she sees the impact of stress and depression in the people she helps.

“People are still dealing with the emotional impacts more than the physical at this point,” she said.

Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles-area psychologist specializing in trauma, said stress and depression can slow the recovery process.

“Part of being depressed and despondent is not doing too much toward getting yourself out of it,” Butterworth said, adding that large-scale mental health assistance should be included in all disaster response efforts, along with housing.

The Rev. Gilbert Abrueo, who runs Night Runners Mobile Crisis Services and has received 22 trailers from FEMA, said he’s been working with his clients to try to get them into permanent homes but finds that many simply have taken advantage of the system.

“At the end of 22 months, they didn’t even had one month’s rent saved up,” Abrueo said. “Two years was an opportunity for people in poverty. This was an opportunity of a lifetime.”

He said some of his poor clients find the FEMA trailers nicer than where they were living before the storms and simply refuse to leave.

Not so for Edward Patrick Encinosa.

Encinosa, 47, has been living in a FEMA trailer on his West Palm Beach property with his wife and three children since 2004. It’s been a struggle trying to find the money to rebuild his home destroyed by hurricanes Frances and Jeanne.

“We’re just praying that we don’t have any damage this season,” Encinosa said. “Things may look bad now, but we’ll make it.”

Nicolas Destinobles and his wife, Marie Jolibois, are in a similar situation. They rent a FEMA trailer from Abrueo for $250 a month.

Destinobles wants nothing more than to move back into his home. He and his wife have been in the small trailer on his Fort Pierce property with six children since Hurricane Francis in 2004. He’s repaired portions of his home himself so a few of his kids can sleep in the house, but life is still a struggle.

Destinobles, 45, who works as a security guard, said he paid a contractor his life’s savings _ $28,000 _ to fix the home, and it’s still not done.

“It’s been such a struggle,” Destinobles said. “I just want so much to finish the house. We just want to be back in our home.”

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