Thousands in Florida still have no place to call home
TAMPA (AP) For thousands of Florida hurricane victims still suffering from last year's storms, a place to call home remains an elusive goal.
The 2004 hurricanes damaged an estimated 700,000 homes, and 29,000 people are still living in government-subsidized travel trailers and mobile homes. Insurance squabbles, a shortage of contractors and a dearth of affordable alternative housing have combined to ensure that the misery won't be ending anytime soon.
"The initial shock's over," said Richard Amell, who has been living in a camper with his family for eight months while they fight with insurance companies and the government to repair a northwest Florida home that Hurricane Ivan blew apart.
"You've lost everything you've accumulated over 48 years. It's gone. You're not getting it back, so get over it."
Amell had insurance, but he received just $150,000, far below what he believes he lost. He was denied assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and hired an attorney to fight his insurance company. He has spent another $30,000 on building materials and is repairing the home himself because he can't find contractors to do the work.
"My credit card's taking a beating," he said.
With labor and supply shortages across Florida, the construction industry hasn't been able to keep up with the demand.
As a result, just about anybody in the hardest-hit regions has had to wait longer to get their homes repaired or replaced. And even those who weren't in Florida last summer but now want to move to the state — and estimated 800 to 1,100 people every day — are finding a strained housing market with short supplies and soaring prices.
The hurricanes were disproportionately damaging for the poor — more than half of those whose homes were affected have annual incomes below $30,000, according to a state report released earlier this year. Among those still struggling to deal with housing issues are the elderly, low-wage earners and farmworkers.
"It's definitely a difficult time for all parties involved," said Ed Brown, vice president of purchasing and construction for Arthur Rutenberg Homes Inc., one of the state's larger home builders which has struggled with building supply issues. Roof shingles are in particular short supply as both homes damaged in the hurricanes and new homes get in line for new roofs.
"It was already bad before last hurricane seasons and the way it is now, looking like we're going to have another wet season in the summer, it's going to be quite challenging," he said. "It's a testament to the state's ability to keep up with all this."
Builders said northwest Florida has suffered the worst effects of post-hurricane housing, and an effort is under way called Rebuild Northwest Florida has raised more than $1 million in cash donations, pledges of building materials and labor to help families out.
At the Bayshore Condominium in Gulf Breeze, some residents have stayed in their damaged homes while the condominium's board struggles to rebuild. Ivan badly damaged 33 of its 98 units.
"We've got people whose unit gets wet every time it rains and they're sleeping on the floor," said Tom Beckham, the project manager for Complete General Contractors, which is rebuilding the condominium.
In some units, the lower half of the walls were open until this month when sheetrock was finally applied.
"You could stand at one end of the unit and see people standing at the other end. So they had no privacy," Beckham said. "Some of them hung blankets on their walls and some of them took pieces of cardboard and put up there, anything for privacy. They had no place to go."
Kathy Gudwien and her brother Mike Sadlowski, a disabled Vietnam veteran, know what it's like to be homeless after Hurricane Jeanne destroyed their Lake Wales apartment complex. They slept in their car one night, and then spent three weeks in a motel before landing in what some might consider a luxury temporary housing: a vacation condominium at the Grenelefe Resort.
But Gudwien said she has had so much trouble dealing with FEMA over reimbursements for the pricey rent that she hasn't enjoyed a minute of it.
"It's been an absolute nightmare." Gudwien said. "I do feel lost."
The apartment complex where the siblings hope to return to is being rebuilt, but materials and workers are in such short supply that the contractor doesn't know when it is going to be done.
"One lady got so upset — she was in her 80s — she went to a nursing home," Gudwien said. "That's what I thought was going to happen with my brother.
"He loves Florida and I feel obligated to care for him. My mother on her death bed said, 'Please take care of your brother.'"
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