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FEMA: Lee County housing aid will 'take a while'; likely mid-summer for some sites to be ready

FEMA mobile homes stockpiled at the airport in Hope, Ark. FEMA plans to lay down $6 million worth of gravel so the trailers don't sink into the mud.
Greg Allen, NPR
FEMA mobile homes stockpiled at the airport in Hope, Ark. FEMA plans to lay down $6 million worth of gravel so the trailers don't sink into the mud.

Work on getting FEMA trailers set up for disaster victims in Southwest Florida could last until well into summer, an agency spokesman said.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman said it could be "well into the summer" before some emergency housing will be built, and overall assistance in Lee County will "take a while."

A special briefing this weekend touched on the housing help FEMA is trying to put into place for those affected by Hurricane Ian.

FEMA Spokesman Keith Jones said by telephone the key to the lengthy time before housing, such as trailers, can be placed was the condition of properties across the area.

"So we're obviously moving through several parallel lines of effort as a company as it relates to recovery from Hurricane Ian, some of the largest of those are being debris," he said. "Obviously, the storm generated quite a bit of debris across Southwest Florida, Central Florida and Northeast Florida. And I'm proud to say that as of today, we've cleared 22.5 million cubic yards of debris in the areas impacted by Hurricane Ian."

Because of that debris, Jones said, some of properties requested for assistance are not suitable for placing a trailer.

The FEMA official said the property conditions, combined with some local rules put into place by homeowners' associations, cities, and counties preclude just dropping a trailer on a property and setting it up.

Doug Roberts, a state disaster recovery coordinator, said residents needing assistance should contact the non-congregate sheltering program that the state is undertaking to provide travel trailers and recreational vehicles to survivors across all 26 counties that have been declared for individual assistance from Hurricane Ian.

"Florida launched the application portal for this non-congregate sheltering program. And for your reference that registration link is Ianrecovery.Fl.gov/unite," Roberts said. "And for survivors who may not be able to complete that online, we also have ... 1-800-892-0948."

Roberts said the non-congregate sheltering program is designed to provide support for the immediate needs of those impacted by Ian by providing a place to live while they look to find other permanent housing solutions.

"This program is intended to complement the FEMA direct housing program," Roberts said, "to be able to provide assistance to survivors who are still trying to figure out what the best solution is for them."

He said this program looks to place travel-style trailers either on the survivor's personal property, or in commercial sites and existing mobile home and travel trailer lots across the state.

"This is a six-month program," Roberts said. "So we are trying to prioritize survivors who do have a space available on a private site and have a need that can be met within six months so that they're not in a position where they have to vacate that trailer. But before they have a permanent housing solution."

Tom McCool, FEMA's federal coordinating officer, stressed that Southwest Florida's housing situation before Ian was already in a negative situation.

"Even prior to this event, Southwest Florida was having housing availability, it was already sort of limited, and much of that is now severely damaged," McCool said. "We're using (Florida Department of Emergency Management's) direct temporary housing program as an additional tool to help survivors. In addition to the monies we provide for repair, or replacement or rental assistance, we're providing direct temporary housing for up to 18 months in six of the 26 counties."

McCool added that the trailer program is only one facet of help that is available.

"There's two other very important programs I'd like to discuss," he said. "The multifamily lease and repair is where FEMA can fund the repair or improvement of existing vacant multifamily rental properties to use for the temporary housing of our survivors. Additionally, we have a program called 'direct lease' where we can use existing ready-to-occupy residential properties."

He stressed that the situation to get housing provided was complicated and time-consuming.

"The emplacement of travel trailers or manufactured homes ... can be complex, but we make every effort to smooth this process," he said. "Right now there's about 16,000 families who meet the criteria of the FEMA housing program, but we have hundreds of caseworkers that call all those individuals, and we've been calling for the last two months."

On the issue of placing the trailers, McCool explained:

"The first thing we'd like to do is, if your home is destroyed or damaged bring the unit right to your home where you live so that you can live in that unit for up 18 months and then repair your home," McCool said. "That's our first option. Our second option is looking at existing commercial parks, looking for existing pads that may be available and then also possibly expanding."

He confirmed what Jones said about getting contracts to expand some existing commercial sites.

"Our last option is group site, and group sites are anywhere from 25 units to upwards of several hundred units, and that is building a community," he said. "We bring all the infrastructure. Then we bring the electric in. We bring the power in. We bring the water in. Obvious, that that takes a little bit of time."

McCool said other issues to be taken care of include transport, permitting, installing, and working to remove debris that's currently there .

"We call every one of those households multiple times. People's situation changes. 'I'm getting my house repaired quicker, I do not need to be in FEMA housing program, my insurance came in, I do not want to live in a mobile home or a travel trailer.' So those numbers always change." FEMA Spokesman Keith Jones

"And, again, any of the units that we place have to comply with the state and local ordinances... . Doug (Roberts) and I were just at a meeting (Friday morning) with all the city and towns and municipalities in Lee County to have another housing discussion and to move forward. So the numbers are large. We have a plan and we're working very closely with the State of Florida."

Jones' comment about work on placing trailers likely lasting into summer referred to the search for suitable commercial sites.

He said that there were more than 16,000 households in the areas affected by Ian that met the housing criteria.

"We call every one of those households multiple times. People's situation changes. 'I'm getting my house repaired quicker. I do not need to be in FEMA housing program. My insurance came in. I do not want to live in a mobile home or a travel trailer.' So those numbers always change," Jones said.

Jones said FEMA has issued over 1,100 site inspections.

"So you will have inspectors go out to your home and look to make sure the infrastructure is there, that the debris is not there, that the unit fits, and you have the capability and the electric to take the unit onto your site ... and that process can take several weeks, we have to match up the survivor with the inspectors and do the inspection. If everything is done, and there's no issues, then a work order is issued."

Jones said that within two weeks to 30 days, the unit is is ready for occupancy.

"We have looked at 589 commercial parks and there are there are 30 parks in development right now," he said. "And some of the some of the parks have some challenges ... there are floodplain issues. You know we cannot put units in coastal high hazard areas or floodways ... we cannot do that. There is debris on commercial parks and we're working with park owners now, to reimburse it, that debris is moved. And then we can bring bring units on."

He said there were around 28 areas in development.

"Which means the Army Corps of Engineers will develop the group sites," Jones said. "And so they're doing a deep dive in terms of drawings in terms of how, where the infrastructure goes, where the water gets hooked up, where the electric gets up. So all these processes are being done concurrently, both working with the survivors, and figuring out where they want to go."

Jones said it was important that the sites be near where the survivor lives.

"So they, the survivor, can go to his house of worship, his doctor, his school, so that takes very close coordination with not only the survivor, but the community leaders ... . So that whole process does does take a while," he said. "My goal is all the private sites by the end of February, all commercial parks by the end of March, and it'll be well into the summer till the last group site is built and occupied. But we will build all the group sites concurrently."

Jones did say some trailers have been distributed to survivors.

"We have Charlotte County, 500 households, Collier, 150, DeSoto, 120, Hardy, 40 families, Sarasota around 200 and then Lee upwards of 2,400 families," Jones said.

Jones said currently FEMA has 13 families housed, 10 in DeSoto County, and three in Charlotte County with 80 for what are referred to as whole and install work orders issued.

"So in the next several weeks, those units will be in place, and families occupying those units. And that is an all the counties DeSoto, Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Sarasota, and Hardy," he said.

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Michael Braun
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