FEMAville the bushit plan for Amerikkka
Welcome to FEMAville
Katrina's victims may be headed for desolation rows like this makeshift Florida trailer park
By PETER WILKINSON
In late July, about a year after Hurricane Charley, Christopher Tennity returned to his temporary home, trailer No. 19 at the Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile-home park in Punta Gorda, Florida -- an arid place known to its residents as FEMAville. He climbed into his bathtub, suffered a heart attack and died at the age of forty. A week passed. Even though No. 19 is sandwiched in with hundreds of other identical trailers, nobody raised an alarm until a maintenance man finally noticed water pouring out of Tennity's place and a passer-by saw the tub poking through No. 19's sodden floor. Tennity's neighbors took it all in stride. Even in death, they know, it's almost as if you don't exist in FEMAville.
For the past thirteen months, this sprawling installation -- at full occupancy, 551 trailers housing more than 1,500 people -- has stood as the largest natural-disaster-relief park in American history. But in coming months it will likely be far surpassed, as those displaced by Hurricane Katrina -- more than 200,000 people -- begin to move into a series of FEMA trailer parks spread across Louisiana and Mississippi. More than 120,000 trailers are now being prepared for Katrina victims, ready to be occupied just as soon as FEMA cuts through its own red tape and extricates those who have been living since the storm in hotel rooms, some costing $100 per night. What's in store for the residents of these new FEMA villages? The worst-case scenarios might look an awful lot like those that have plagued the residents of Punta Gorda: a complete lack of essential services; high crime; isolation from even their closest neighbors; and, because permanent housing is so hard to find, a pervasive sense of hopelessness and despair. Indeed, FEMAville Florida -- either through neglect or design -- has mutated into a microcosm of the worst of urban America, a hellish social experiment played out on a grand scale. Welcome to the New American Ghetto.
"We know that creating enclaves of poverty that are separate from the larger society can be a dangerous thing all around," says Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "That's why the federal government literally blew up dozens of horrible, hulking public housing projects in the 1990s and worked to create economically integrated neighborhoods. Even in the name of disaster relief, re-creating the failed housing projects on a smaller scale in trailer parks does not contribute to providing a sound social environment for adults and, particularly, children."
Charley, a Category 4 storm with winds above 175 miles per hour, cold-cocked Punta Gorda, a working-class city of 17,000, in August 2004, destroying almost all of Charlotte County's subsidized or affordable housing. Left homeless, people slept in their cars or trucks; some set up their families in tents. FEMA officials scrambled to find emergency housing for thousands of displaced people and cleared out a ninety-acre plot of county-owned scrubland adjacent to the Charlotte County Airport and the Charlotte County Jail. That desolate patch, about ten miles from the city limits, abuts thundering Interstate 75 and acres of parched fields where underweight cattle graze.
Originally, more than 500 indistinguishable white, furnished trailers -- seventy feet long and fourteen feet wide, with three bedrooms each -- were set up on cinder blocks, side by side, ten feet apart, in long rows. The deal: Occupants were invited to live rent-free, as long as they agreed to pick up the utility bills (including the option of satellite TV for seventy-five dollars per month) and to leave as soon as they found permanent accommodations. FEMA contractors erected red stop signs where the rows of trailers intersect and green signs to label the "streets" in between. Otherwise, FEMAville is virtually devoid of color -- no trees, no flowers, no parks. It has no school, no convenience store, no supermarket, no post office, no gas station, no hospital. The closest restaurants -- McDonald's, Arby's, Pizza Hut, Subway -- are found in truck stops five miles away. You can't live there without a car.
Oddly enough, this almost surreal deadness seems to have been specifically engineered by FEMA. The apparent logic: If residents became too comfortable in the trailer park, they'd never leave -- a major problem considering that according to federal rules, the park is mandated to be shut down after eighteen months, on February 13th, 2006. Last month's Hurricane Wilma, which did minor damage to the park, has done nothing to change this official deadline. "There's nothing in there that meets social needs," says Bob Hebert, director of recovery for Charlotte County. "There's no community center, not even a place to hold some kind of worship service. None of these provisions were made. The crime rate -- the level of juvenile delinquency and domestic violence -- bears a direct relationship to the fact that there's nothing out there for the kids to do with their free time. There's a sense of futility, that there's no light at the end of the tunnel."
When Dr. David Klein, a local eye surgeon, lobbied to set up a free clinic in FEMAville, agency officials first balked at the request. "When they finally let us open it," Klein says, "FEMA said, 'Don't make it too homey.' We explained that it wasn't the Cleveland Clinic or Columbia Presbyterian. It was just basic medical care."
In the beginning, a sense of adventure and excitement filled FEMAville. People of every socioeconomic stripe settled in, including some households that cleared $90,000 annually, and some retirees, who comprise thirty-five percent of the county's population. It was not uncommon to see a Jaguar parked next to a dinged-up '79 Chevy.
A year later, the average household income in the park is $19,000, and dropping fast. As palm trees sway on rebuilt million-dollar waterfront properties a few miles away, FEMAville today looks more than ever like an abandoned military barracks, despite the fact that most trailers remain occupied. Unrelenting heat, which can surpass 100 degrees in midday, keeps residents inside for most of the day. When sandstorms blow through the park, as they often do, a chalky white dust covers every surface. Besides the dust, and the heat, there is the light to contend with. Blinding and white, softened by nothing but an occasional cloud, it can be disorienting, like the noonday burn in the Sahara.
"I hate it here," says Lennox Hall, 17, an aspiring musician who recently graduated from Charlotte High School. Hall and his stepfather, a National Guardsman; his mother, a nurse; and his two younger brothers have been living in Unit No. 172 for about a year. A soft-spoken bear of a young man, he's seated at a picnic table near one of the two small playgrounds in FEMAville, built only after a long tussle with the agency over liability issues. A toddler named Jaquavis, a friend's child, squirms on his knee.
"There's just way too much drama here," says Hall, who usually spends the hours between six o'clock and midnight at the playground, when the weather is cooler. "Everybody is so close to each other that when there's a conflict, it seems like everyone in this place gets involved."
Two months ago, a visiting motorist ran over a three-year-old boy, leaving the child with broken legs. Drunken-driving mishaps happen frequently. Hall points toward the park's western sector and a crumpled section of fencing near a drainage ditch -- the previous weekend's most visible DUI crackup. "That's where all the problem people live, from Seventh Street and higher," he says. "There's none of that stuff up in front, where the cops are."
During FEMAville Florida's first few weeks, law enforcement of any kind was minimal. Outsiders cruised in at all hours of the day or night to sell drugs, to party, to raise hell. Domestic violence was rampant, as were break-ins -- it's easy to pry the door off the frame of a FEMAville trailer. A few scammers even found other places to stay and rented out their rent-free trailer to somebody else.
Inevitably, drugs infiltrated FEMAville. Gerald Sawyer, in Unit No. 512, which has an unobstructed view of pastureland, noticed how the trade seemed to break down geographically. "Units in the 400s are the weed section, the upper 320s to the 350s is the meth section, and the 110s to the 140s is the crack section," he says. "Once the sun goes down, all bets are off."
Gary Paro watches the dealers and their customers from his wheelchair in Unit No. 13. At fifty-eight, Paro, a military veteran, looks about seventy-five, a victim of heart and liver disease, circulatory problems and plenty of hard living. The lower portions of his legs are red and swollen, and mottled lesions cover his arms. Paro had lived in a mobile home in Charlotte Harbor for less than a year when Charley flattened it. After a few weeks of sleeping in his truck, he moved into FEMAville last Thanksgiving.
"Certain trailers became beehives of activity," Paro says. "It's entertainment -- better than TV. Cars would be running down the streets at three or four o'clock in the morning." Paro reaches under the seat of his wheelchair, grins and produces a black .22-caliber pistol. "They come around here, they're not going to get shot in the leg -- they're going to get shot in the head. There'll only be one side to that story."
A few part-time FEMA-contracted security guards appeared last winter; they were augmented in the spring by Charlotte County sheriff's deputies, a bit of a bureaucratic mission-creep for an agency whose charter limits it to providing emergency services. (Those deputies' wages, which will total more than $523,000 by January, are being paid by FEMA, the first time the agency has footed such a bill in one of its disaster parks and an option being explored for its trailer parks in Mississippi and Louisiana.) Perimeter fences were installed, the back gate to FEMAville was closed, and a security shack was built at the front gate, manned by armed guards. Now all visitors must be announced, which has cut transient traffic considerably.
Still, crime remains a major issue. In January, sheriff's deputies answered 154 calls from the park and filed 40 reports; then, in August, 257 calls came in, resulting in 78 reports -- the highest number so far. Criminals who've done time in local jails live in the park, including as many as four registered sex offenders. Some children report instances of adults trying to lure them into cars or their trailers. "That happened to me twice," says Zachary Donaldson, 11, a self-assured kid wearing a BAD TO THE BONE T-shirt.
"The stress level is very high out there," says Charlotte County Sheriff John Davenport. "It's a very depressive state. Frankly, it's depressing for my officers who work there." Young people, especially, fare poorly. "It's very hard on the kids," Davenport says. "The teenagers have lost their possessions and, to some degree, their identity."
Safety in FEMAville isn't a major concern for children and teenagers only. Many older residents live in fear, which thickens the sense of isolation. Rarely do Sonia Dominguez and her husband, Jose Concepcion, venture out of Unit No. 364 at night. Jose, who drove a truck until a back problem left him drawing $800 a month in workmen's compensation, grimaces as he settles into an overstuffed chair. Sonia, 52, lost her job as a nurse after Charley and now works two days a week, for ten dollars an hour, as a private nurse's assistant. "It's not much," she says, "but I'm trying to save."
A couple of nights earlier, somebody threw a rock through one of their windows, sending glass everywhere. "A lot of bad people live around here," says Jose, 42. "The music is too loud, every night until 11 or 11:30. Dogs run wild."
"I pray every day for one thing," Sonia says. "To move away from here."
Since its inception in 1979, at the urging of President Jimmy Carter, FEMA has been charged with two main responsibilities: to prepare for disasters and then, once a disaster strikes, provide temporary emergency aid -- money, manpower and shelter -- when requested to do so by a state's governor. Structuring long-term recovery is left up to the states.
For years, FEMA was a repository for bureaucratic mediocrities with little disaster experience, until Bill Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as director in 1993. A former state emergency manager, Witt made FEMA a place of skilled professionals and won praise for focusing on disaster preparedness. Witt's job even became a Cabinet-level post. Over the years, FEMA set up group shelters to house victims of hurricanes and other natural disasters, albeit on a much smaller scale than FEMAville Punta Gorda.
George W. Bush obliterated Witt's good work. He staffed FEMA with incompetent cronies. He slashed the agency's funding, most significantly in 2004, when it denied Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests and Army Corps of Engineers cash requests, which might have reinforced the levees that broke in New Orleans. And Bush marginalized the agency, folding FEMA into the unwieldy morass that is the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA today employs 2,600 people, supplemented by 4,000 standby disaster reservists, many of them independent contractors. No longer is its director a part of the president's Cabinet.
To look at FEMA's cheery Web site, at the color photographs of smiling African-Americans in Mississippi, standing outside FEMA-issued travel trailers -- RV-like vehicles that are smaller than mobile homes -- you'd think the agency's Katrina efforts were moving swiftly. They are not. After the storm, FEMA told Congress it expected to spend $2 billion to buy as many as 300,000 travel trailers and mobile homes to house displaced Katrina victims. As of mid-October, more than a month after the storm, less than 8,000 were occupied, and 9,000 mobile homes and travel trailers sat unused at government staging areas in four states.
An early plan to shelter the displaced in hotels or motels in forty-eight states, at $8.3 million per day, was recently extended indefinitely, past its original October 15th, 2005, expiration date, largely because FEMA was having logistical problems setting up the trailer parks. "FEMA still does not know any more about what it was doing last week than it was a month ago," Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, told the New York Times in mid-October. "It is still, as far as I'm concerned, an incompetent agency."
Nevertheless, FEMA is proud of its work in southwestern Florida. FEMAville Florida has problems, agency officials argue, but so does every small city in America. "The purpose of FEMA temporary housing programs, including the group site in Punta Gorda -- which are planned, coordinated and implemented with our local and state partners -- is to give disaster victims a place to live while they seek long-term solutions," says spokeswoman Frances Marine, who has been involved in FEMA's response to both Charley and Katrina. "The park in Punta Gorda has served that purpose."
Although local officials estimate that about sixty percent of the park's original residents have found permanent housing and left, most of their vacated trailers have been quickly filled with new people from the FEMAville waiting list. And many of those are in particularly dire straits -- disabled and unable to work, with no way to save money for permanent shelter.
Gerald Sawyer, 37, the careful observer of the drug scene in FEMAville, moved his family into Unit No. 512 on Christmas Day 2004. The Rochester, New York, native earned $30,000 a year as an electrician in Charlotte County until about two years ago, when an inoperable tumor at the base of his skull grew to the size of a golf ball. Sawyer, a burly man who wears brown hair past his shoulders, a mustache and glasses, suffered seizures on the job, until a doctor pronounced him unfit to continue. He shares No. 512 with his wife, Susan, a cashier at a convenience store, and their three children, Edward, 14, Jonathan, 12, and Kassandra, who is eleven and partial to wearing long peasant skirts, even though her classmates mock her for it.
With Susan's salary and Gerald's Social Security, the Sawyers' household income runs between $1,300 and $1,600 a month -- depending on how many hours Susan, a rail-thin chain smoker, puts in at her job. Air conditioning, humming twenty-four hours a day in the Sawyers' trailer, costs $200 a month. That might sound extravagant, but without it the interior temperature would reach intolerable levels in no time flat. "I sold my big-screen TV to pay bills, my stereo, some guns, and I pawned my wife's one-half-karat wedding ring for $120," says Gerald. "I got it out of hock for a hundred and sixty."
A few months ago, a meth cook took up residence in the trailer next to the Sawyer unit. Smelling chemicals, Gerald called the police, who busted the lab. "The cook retaliated by sugaring my gas tank," he says, folding Kassandra into his arms. Charley traumatized the bespectacled little girl. For three or four months after the storm, she barely slept; when she did, she had nightmares. She lost weight. Her siblings didn't fare much better. Furious at having lost everything, Kassandra's brother Jonathan, a seventh grader with orange hair, wouldn't talk to anyone for a month after the hurricane. During the storm, Jonathan happened to glance across the canal from where he lived just as a man was decapitated by a wind-borne piece of metal. "One minute he was standing next to his boat, tying it down," Jonathan says. "And the next minute blood was squirting straight up from his neck."
Stockier than Jonathan, older brother Edward seems less sullen. He wears black fingernail polish, a necklace made of a thick metal pull chain and black gel bracelets -- the complete goth kit. Edward plays heavy-metal music on his grandfather's old acoustic guitar, because he can't afford a Telecaster, and he wants to start a band. Though he's made a couple of friends out in the park, he can't wait to get out of FEMAville. At school, a teacher assigned Edward's freshman class to write an essay about how they'd been living since the hurricane. When Edward wrote about life in the park, another student retorted, "You live there? You guys are scum!"
"Everything is going in a downward spiral," Edward says, tossing a dark green hacky-sack from hand to hand. "When are things going to get any better?" Like Gerald Sawyer, Kathleen Maehr, in Unit No. 487, suffers from a debilitating physical condition. Maehr, 38, weeps as Brittany and Stephanie, her teenage daughters, sit stone-faced at their kitchen table and their Rottweiler Zina whines in her cage. The girls have seen their mother cry so much these past few months, they barely react anymore. In a manufactured city of broken lives, Kathleen's story may be one of the most tragic. Tears falling down her face, she says, "I feel like a complete failure."
Four months before Charley hit, Maehr's husband, a building contractor, died of pancreatic cancer -- he went into the hospital on a Tuesday and passed away the next day at the age of thirty-seven. He had no life insurance. The storm ruined their modest waterfront home in Port Charlotte, which was also uninsured, and looters made off with most of their possessions.
Kathleen now supports herself and her children -- Stephanie, 17, Brittany, 15, and Christopher, 13 -- on the $325 a week she makes holding down two jobs. One is as a crew trainer at a McDonald's ten miles away in Port Charlotte, a job for which she leaves most mornings at six. The other is as a cashier in a gas station. Because Kathleen isn't home much, the girls fend for themselves. Recently, to help pay bills, Stephanie took a job at the same McDonald's, working after school from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m.
Some days, Kathleen can't work. An aneurysm in her brain, pressing on her optic nerve, triggers seizures, headaches and blurred vision in her left eye. With no health insurance and no savings, she can't afford the operation she needs, or even doctors' visits. But she believes FEMAville is taking its greatest toll on Christopher, who has been getting into fights at school and is regularly smoking pot. "His attitude has changed 100 percent since we've been here," says Kathleen, who is still living out of a suitcase in her cluttered bedroom. "He curses me. He has no respect for me now. Last year he bombed on his grades at school. He hangs out with people he's not supposed to. I almost called the police on him the other night. He's angry over losing his father, his house and his friends."
Charlotte county has always been a region of wealthy senior citizens served by the working poor -- thirty-five percent of the population is over sixty-five, making this the most elderly county in the United States. Hurricane Charley has left it even more economically polarized. Now, about twenty-six percent of the population has no health insurance, one of the highest rates in Florida; eighty percent of the children in the school district come from families living below the federal poverty line.
Even as hurricane recovery continues, a potentially more devastating chapter in the story of Hurricane Charley is being written. Charlotte County is now experiencing urban renewal and gentrification by natural disaster. With most of the affordable housing smashed by the storm, owners and developers saw a chance to make a killing. Rents were jacked up twenty-five percent or far more; on oceanfront lots, where modest homes had been leveled, multimillion-dollar houses began going up, their prices swelled by the exorbitant costs of Class 5 hurricane fortification. "We're going to have a community where nobody can afford to live," says Klein, a New York native who has lived in the area for twenty-seven years.
Before the storm, Gerald Sawyer and his family paid $725 per month to rent a small house, which was severely damaged in the hurricane. That house, now repaired, commands $1,250, far more than the Sawyers can afford. When asked if buying a home is an option, he chuckles. "The cheapest house around here is $195,000, which is a forty percent mark-up in a single year," he says.
Dawn Miller, in Unit No. 29, near the front gate, is in a similar bind. A single mother and a kitchen supervisor at Charlotte Regional Hospital, she moved in to FEMAville with her sons T.J., 22, and Randy, 17, in October. Miller earns $1,400 a month working at the hospital and has about $300 left for incidentals after the monthly bills are paid. Before the storm, Miller paid $500 a month in rent: "Now, the cheapest place I've seen goes for $950."
Miller is living the classic FEMAville Catch-22: Her meager income is too high to make her eligible for local HUD housing, dozens of units of which have been under construction in the months since the storm hit. Those apartments are almost finished, but there is a two-year waiting list to get one. So for now, she and her sons remain in FEMAville, nervously watching the February deadline -- the day when the park is due to shut down and make room for a sprawling public-safety building to be built on the land. But of the 551 trailers at the park during its peak, 447 still house Charley victims.
It has become a topic of fevered speculation among the residents of FEMAville: Will it close on schedule? In early October, FEMA vaguely announced that it would not kick out people who have so far failed to find permanent housing and would continue to help them make arrangements for emergency housing. No specifics were provided, which frustrates residents. "Bottom line: We will continue to work with the residents, the county and the state," was all FEMA spokeswoman Frances Marine could offer in late October. "People will not be on the street."
Some residents aren't taking their chances. A few bought their trailers from FEMA and took them elsewhere, although at seventy feet, they're too large for most mobile-home parks. The few trailers that have been vacated, meanwhile, have been gutted, cleaned and shipped off to Mississippi and Louisiana.
Bob Hebert, director of recovery for Charlotte County, thinks the lessons of Charley can be used to improve FEMAvilles of the future. It would be an enormous folly, he says, to build parks on a scale bigger than the one in Punta Gorda. "It's a massive mistake to go larger. Even 500 units is too big, and the park here is too isolated. You have to lower the scope, to fifty, one hundred units, and put the trailers closer to where people's houses used to be." Also, Hebert says, the next generation of FEMAvilles should provide some essential services. "We just didn't deal with the reality of the way people want to live."
After flailing in the days after Katrina, FEMA seems to have listened. Abandoning an initial plan to set up massive parks of 25,000 trailers, FEMA scaled back, a few weeks later, to a plan of 500 trailers per park, as in Punta Gorda. Then, in October, as it struggled to move Katrina victims out of shelters and motels, the agency seemed to change course again. Disaster parks of only 250 trailers on average would be set up, James McIntyre, a FEMA spokesman in Washington, D.C., says.
"The smaller size makes it easier for management purposes, and it also makes it easier to merge these parks into the ongoing infrastructure in the community that they'll be near," McIntyre says.
"It has less impact on the schools, less impact on transportation and less impact on utilities." But how the Katrina parks are ultimately arranged, and how FEMA deals with the quandary of providing services to people it doesn't want to stick around, is still very much up in the air.
On October 26th, eight weeks after Katrina, federal officials released a sketchy plan to locate 2,000 families in temporary trailer parks on nineteen different sites in New Orleans. That's only a tiny portion of the temporary housing the city needs and a fraction of the 120,000 trailers the agency has ordered for the region.
Officials blame logistics -- permits, zoning, safety concerns and local opposition -- for the delay. Still, as it struggles in the Gulf, FEMA won't admit it learned anything in Punta Gorda. "The decision to have smaller parks has nothing to do with Florida," McIntyre insists. "These are the priorities set by the governors' offices in Mississippi and Louisiana."
A voucher program, advocated by some experts, that might give storm victims more of a choice about where they relocate, doesn't seem to have gained much traction in Washington. "What is bewildering about the Katrina situation is why the federal government has chosen the trailer-park option over alternatives that are proven to be more effective and efficient," says Bruce Katz of Brookings.
"Housing vouchers would give low-income and moderate-income families the ability to rent quality apartments or homes in neighborhoods with ready access to educational and employment opportunities. And providing vouchers for the next eighteen months would also be cheaper than the temporary options selected by the government."
Early on October 24th, Hurricane Wilma, a Category 3 storm, rampaged across southwest Florida. Before dawn, the storm made landfall an hour south of Punta Gorda, picking up speed as it headed east toward Miami.
In the FEMA park, all was quiet, and had been all week. The trailers were already tied down to their cinder-block foundations. Most residents had evacuated, to the homes of friends or relatives, or to emergency shelters. A few residents, some sick and elderly, stubbornly remained huddled inside their units, to wait out the 120 mph winds.
The Sawyers loaded their few belongings into Gerald's pale blue Chevy and prepared to leave for Fort Myers, twenty-eight miles south, where a friend had offered the family a room for the night. Sawyer could not predict whether the family would return to a trailer turned on its side by the wind or blown completely into the cow pasture.
"Those trailers in the park aren't hurricane-proof," Sheriff Davenport had said before Wilma hit. "You get another Category 2 or above hurricane through here, and those trailers are gone. The park would be flattened."
Thankfully, Davenport would be proved wrong. Even though a few pieces of siding ripped off some of the trailers, and phone and electrical services were lost for a few hours, FEMAville survived, largely intact and virtually unchanged -- except for one thing. Gerald Sawyer saw it, in the oddly silent days leading up to Wilma: The prospect of another natural disaster had brought out a new breed of vulture.
"People were already breaking into the trailers that had been left unoccupied during the evacuation away from Wilma," he says. "You could see them sneaking around in the dark and hear them checking the locks."