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Southwest Florida communities reflect on their needs after Hurricane Irma. Katie Klann/Naples Daily News

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KEY WEST — As the first FEMA trailers arrived this week in the Florida Keys to help those left homeless by Hurricane Irma, many in hard-hit Southwest Florida where the storm also made landfall wondered whether and when the temporary housing would be available for them.

Ten trailers arrived Wednesday, almost two weeks after Monroe County requested 9,200 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house many of the workers who keep the Keys' tourism industry alive.

Pressure was key to securing the FEMA trailers, said Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent. 

"The pressure we put on FEMA was the facts," he said, noting the need of "people here who had homes or who were renting whose housing was destroyed and now have nowhere to go unless they have temporary housing.”

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With more than 1,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged in Collier County, Commissioner Bill McDaniel said he doesn't know why there hasn't been more urgency to press FEMA to bring housing.

"I'm surprised that we hadn't asked specifically for temporary housing, and I want to know why," McDaniel said.

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FEMA representatives said earlier that they had deemed Monroe County the hardest hit in Florida and that they were going there to develop temporary housing first, said Ken Clifford, legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney.

“There was a perception they got hit the worst,” said Rooney, of Naples. “I don’t know if FEMA has responded to that perception or not.” 

Regarding FEMA, Rooney said, “They have been less responsive on housing than they have been on everything else, and I don’t know why.”

FEMA spokesmen wouldn't confirm Thursday that the agency provided the trailers.  

“Monroe County’s information may be incorrect or incomplete,” said FEMA spokesman John Mills, who abruptly hung up on reporters twice without elaborating. 

The arrival of temporary housing in Monroe County underscores different approaches taken by county leaders in the Keys and Collier.

Monroe County leaders sought housing help days after Irma passed. Collier and state officials did not request trailers from FEMA until Tuesday, 16 days after the hurricane devastated some of the poorest communities in the county.

While 84 families in the Keys have been approved for the trailers, no one in Collier has been, even as hotels have filled or stopped accepting new evacuees.

Key West Mayor Craig Cates said FEMA agreed to an initial shipment of 2,000 units to Monroe County. The trailers will be distributed to people’s properties so they can live in them while resurrecting destroyed homes, and they could be hooked up at two Lower Keys RV parks as well, he said.

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The first group of housing trailers will be used in the Lower Keys at two RV sites whose units were almost entirely destroyed by Irma. 

Although the hurricane largely spared Key West, temporary housing will be critical to its tourist-based economy, Cates said.

“Yes, I asked for them, not because anyone in Key West needed trailers but because a lot of our workers live on the islands north of us, and they needed them real bad," Cates said.

Rather than pressuring FEMA for trailers, Collier deferred to the federal agency on housing decisions.

"The housing mission is primarily a FEMA mission, and it works in layers," said Collier County Manager Leo Ochs.

The process starts with FEMA teams on the ground taking applications for temporary housing assistance. FEMA then works with county and state officials to tally the number of homes destroyed and damaged and compares those numbers with total housing stock, population and the number of survivors who qualify for assistance, according to the Florida Emergency Response Team.

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Ultimately, it's the state, with the support of the county, that makes the request to FEMA to provide trailers or mobile homes, said the Florida Emergency Response Team.

Monroe made an early request for a direct housing mission through the state, which allowed additional time to collect and validate the necessary data to submit their application to FEMA, said the Florida Emergency Response Team.

Collier can't wait for FEMA to guarantee reimbursement to order temporary housing, McDaniel said.

"We're not a poor county. We have reserves," McDaniel said. "If we're not getting trailers because we don't want to financially take on housing costs before FEMA says it will definitely reimburse us, then we have to take a hard look at what we can do and what we should do."

Local officials have been told that FEMA has only 1,000 trailers available for Florida, Ochs said, and those trailers will be given out only as a last resort.

FEMA would prefer to use hotels, vacant apartments or rental units as temporary housing. Hotel rooms and apartments are cheaper for FEMA to provide and much more comfortable for families, said Dan Summers, director of the Collier emergency operations center.

But available rental units are almost nonexistent in Collier, which is in one of its worst affordable-housing crunches in its history. Rental properties hover between 98 and 99 percent full, according to a February study commissioned by the county. 

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As quickly as nearby hotels opened to FEMA evacuees, they filled and closed. As of Thursday, there were no hotels in Collier County accepting evacuees. The nearest hotels were up to three hours away in Tampa, Orlando and Miami.

More than 17,000 people in Collier County have qualified for some form of transitional housing assistance, according to FEMA records. Almost 170 have had hotel stays covered by FEMA.

Parts of Collier County were hit as hard by the storm as the Keys. Nine-foot storm surges flooded nearly every part of the small fishing community of Everglades City, where officials have estimated 540 of the roughly 640 buildings were destroyed or severely damaged.

Mobile home parks for seniors and low-income families were flooded or slashed by the wind in North Naples, East Naples and Goodland.

Dozens of families were displaced in the small farming community of Immokalee.

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Santiago Rosalez, 61, has been living out of his truck since the storm collapsed a third of the trailer he owns in Immokalee. He parks his truck next to his broken trailer at night. When the heat becomes unbearable, Rosalez turns on the engine to crank the A/C. When it's cool enough, he shuts the car off and tries to go back to sleep.

Rosalez registered Monday with FEMA, but he hasn't heard back, he said.

"I’ve got five quarters in my pocket,” he said. 

Reporter Brett Murphy contributed to this report.

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