Southwest Florida communities reflect on their needs after Hurricane Irma. Katie Klann/Naples Daily News
Samantha Tindell, her partner and two children were ready to sleep yet another night in a tent next to their trailer Friday evening, almost two weeks after Hurricane Irma hit Immokalee and made their home unlivable. They had a battery-operated fan to fight the heat and two tiki torches to keep mosquitoes at bay.
Then it started to rain.
The tent flooded, so they ran inside the mobile home, where part of the roof was missing and some of the ceiling had collapsed or was bending.
An inspector from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had checked the trailer earlier that day and told Tindell they needed to stay outside because of the mold, she said. So they slept in the areas where the roof hadn’t been damaged, trying to stay away from the mold.
“I don’t know what to do because I don’t have anywhere to stay,” Tindell said.
Two weeks after Hurricane Irma hit Immokalee, some residents — often the poorest in one of the communities most vulnerable to the storm — are still living in severely damaged homes. Collier County crews have condemned at least 53 mobile homes. They estimate 3 out of 5 trailers in the county’s unincorporated areas have been affected by the storm.
Local officials and FEMA inspectors are still assessing damage and don’t have a count of those left homeless or a plan to provide them with temporary housing.
In the meantime Miguel Burnett and his family live in a mobile home that lost a lot of its exterior siding and was soaked when the water came in; Teresa Pedro stays with her husband and four children in a trailer with missing roof metal sheets, a ceiling that caved in above the kitchen table and the constant stench of mold; Maura Diaz stays with her 11-year-old son at a trailer that lost part of its roof, leaving a room in the open air.
The damage, some say, should be a wake-up call to rebuild an Immokalee where its poorest neighbors can have access to safer housing.
“Affordable housing was a problem before the hurricane,” said Frank Nappo, chairman of the Immokalee Community Redevelopment Agency advisory board. “Affordable housing now is not a problem; it’s an absolute necessity.”
Tindell says she chewed through the family savings to pay for motel rooms when they evacuated their home and during the hurricane’s aftermath. They bought the tent that they set outside their trailer with Tindell’s partner’s first paycheck after the storm.
She says they now depend on FEMA assistance to repair the decades-old trailer they bought for about $6,000 years ago. They live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have insurance. On Wednesday, Sept. 20, the family got $500 from the federal agency to pay for electric and water bills, Tindell said. They will also be reimbursed for the motel expenses during the evacuation. But they still haven’t been told if they will qualify for long-term federal help to repair their home.
Meanwhile, water kept coming in their trailer when it rained, and the ceiling and walls kept absorbing it. Tindell’s partner, Antonio Martin, had to work long hours cleaning debris left by the hurricane in Naples and didn’t have time to put a tarp over their trailer until Saturday, Sept. 23.
Tindell says county crews haven’t left a notice condemning her home or deeming it damaged yet. But local officials are letting residents stay in homes they condemn, even if they have missing walls, roofs, windows and doors, or severe flood damage.
“County staff have no intention whatsoever to 'kick' or remove someone from their residence at this time while our community is still recuperating from the effects of the storm,” Jonathan Walsh, Building Plans Review and Inspections Division Chief Building Official, said in an email.
Walsh said, though, that they strongly suggest residents move out of unsafe buildings.
Lisa Lefkow, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Collier County, said no one should live in a condemned unit, but the county should provide assistance in helping relocate the displaced.
Mike Wade, FEMA spokesman, said Monday that it’s too early for FEMA to decide whether it will send mobile homes to temporarily house those displaced by Irma in Immokalee. He said local officials have to assess their community needs and work with the state to decide what resources they want to request from FEMA. Then the federal agency will analyze the request and grant or deny it.
Wade also said that bringing mobile homes into the community is the agency’s last resort and that they look first at other solutions. Wade said the agency doesn’t have a count of how many Collier residents have been provided rental assistance or hotel vouchers.
Collier County is encouraging residents to report damage from Hurricane Irma online to speed up the process of assessing damage and needs, which will help formulate a plan to address them.
More immediately, Collier County Housing Authority is offering 176 beds in dormitory-style housing in Horizon Village up to October, when they have committed 80 of those beds, said Oscar Hentschel, executive director of the housing authority. The rest of the beds will be available until December.
The agency is also prioritizing displaced families to occupy six rental apartments in Farm Worker Village.
Rural Neighborhoods, a nonprofit that provides affordable rental housing in Immokalee, expects to offer most of the 20 apartments to low-income residents affected by Irma in about six to eight weeks, said Steven Kirk, president of the nonprofit.
The road ahead
Maura Diaz slept with her husband and 11-year-old son for a few nights in the trailer they rent, where part of the roof is gone and areas of the ceiling are swollen with water.
The smell inside the trailer made Diaz dizzy, she said. She was also concerned about the roof and feared that someone would come in to loot their home. After evacuating to Georgia, she says, they ran out of money. They didn’t have a car to go to the shelter, and they want to live with some privacy.
“We were scared, but we didn’t have any other solution than to stay,” she said.
Diaz, an immigrant from Mexico, is sleeping with her family at a friend's home, but she stays at the trailer cooking, cleaning and taking care of her son during the day, when she doesn’t work.
She says she looked for another trailer to rent but found none. She thinks she will get one of the apartments Rural Neighborhoods rents to low-income residents soon, but she doesn’t know yet when she will be able to move in.
Many in Immokalee think the damage caused by Irma has highlighted the need to build more safe, affordable housing.
Collier County commissioner Bill McDaniel, who represents Immokalee, said the county is working on a countywide affordable housing plan and that there are programs and regulations in place to incentivize repairing and replacing vulnerable homes.
Nappo said he hopes the money comes to Immokalee to build affordable, safe housing and hopes that if FEMA does bring trailers, they won’t become a long-term solution like those the agency left in the community after Wilma and are still around.
Lefkow said Collier County Code Enforcement needs to hold landlords accountable if they are renting out substandard housing.
“We grandfather people in, and we look the other way,” the Habitat for Humanity CEO said. “We can’t do that. That’s unconscionable.”
Steven Kirk, with Rural Neighborhoods, said Irma proved again that older, dilapidated trailers built before the building codes developed after Hurricane Andrew are a risk in a storm.
“Perhaps our eyes have been opened by Irma as to how strongly we need those homes not only for economic reasons,” Kirk said. “I think now we understand how important new homes will be to the health and safety of the community.”
He hopes that funds will be allocated to improve Immokalee’s drainage system and that local governments and groups like his own will look at how they can build affordable housing that can stand future storms. In the meantime, he said, churches, nonprofits and other groups should come together to find housing for the displaced families.
FEMA trailers would be safer than most mobile homes in Immokalee and could be a good solution to temporarily house those affected by the hurricane, Kirk said.
“I don’t object to FEMA utilizing safe existing mobile home lots,” he said. “It would be unfair for FEMA to replace landlords’ dilapidated trailers with new government trailers.”
Charles M. Griffin, owner of one of the trailer parks that suffered severe damage, said his park is up to code and that his trailers were in good condition before the hurricane.
He said the trailers were some of those that FEMA sent to Homestead to temporarily house residents affected by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. His father bought 15 of them years after the hurricane, had them moved to Immokalee and fixed them. He rents each for $545 a month or $135 a week.
“The ones that I fixed up, they were nice trailers,” he said.
He said building duplexes and homes is expensive, and he doesn’t see many investors doing that in Immokalee. If he rebuilds the park, he said, it will be with trailers.
To help his tenants, he said, Griffin didn’t collect weekly rents during the week before the hurricane, and he has given back September rent to two or three families who paid month to month and whose trailers were destroyed.