Thursday, November 3, 2005

Drying Up and Running Around

I’m still seeing news pieces and e-mail appeals about helping people recover from Hurricane Katrina. Not to minimize the devastation that storm brought, but a lot of people have forgotten — or never even noticed — that there are recovery efforts that are faltering after Hurricane Wilma here in South Florida.

The Red Cross says it can no longer afford to house evacuees in hotels. The Salvation Army has run out of beds. And government housing authorities have few or no vacancies.

On a day when the number of South Florida housing units deemed uninhabitable in the wake of Wilma grew to more than 13,000, emergency housing options were dwindling for the growing number of evacuees.

A glimmer of hope emerged late Wednesday, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that 200 trailers and mobile homes were headed to Broward, which bore the brunt of the hurricane.

That will put a small dent in the army of newly uprooted South Floridians.

Wilma was “the most damaging storm to hit our area since 1950,” causing more than $350 million dollars in damage to Broward’s infrastructure, said Mayor Kristin Jacobs. About 11,000 of the houses, apartments, condominiums and mobile homes tagged unsafe since the storm are in Broward.

Wilma’s destruction and the rising need for relief has created a housing and shelter crisis, helping to push the 124-year-old American Red Cross to a financial edge.

Spokesman Ken Austin said Wednesday that the Red Cross, which borrowed $304 million last week after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita depleted its Disaster Relief Fund, couldn’t care for South Florida evacuees over the long term. “We’re helping folks right now with immediate needs, but with this magnitude of a disaster, the next step would be FEMA.”

But there was confusion about which agency was responsible for sheltering evacuees.

A group of seven families from the Gulf Coast — evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in August — said the Red Cross gave them two hours notice Wednesday to leave their rooms at the Wellesley Inn hotel in Plantation.

The Katrina evacuees said the Red Cross told them to contact FEMA to extend their stays at the hotel. But when New Orleans evacuee Freddie Anderson reached FEMA, he said it referred him back to the Red Cross.

“Why you giving me the runaround?” he asked.

Anderson, who said he only has $300 to his name, paid more than $100 to secure his six-member family one more night at the hotel while they figure out new living arrangements.

Red Cross spokeswoman Carrie Martin said the families could stay at Broward Red Cross shelters.

But maybe not for long. The Red Cross’ four Broward shelters are in public schools. They may be sent packing Monday — the date school officials intend to resume classes.

While some things are returning to normal here — FPL says more and more people are getting power every day and Miami-Dade Public Schools are reopening today — there are still a lot of people in the dark and homeless. In many ways Hurricane Wilma was a bigger disaster for Florida than Hurricane Andrew, which until now has been the benchmark. It had, however, the misfortune of coming after Katrina, and that was a tough act to follow. It also shows that FEMA hasn’t really changed a whole lot since Brownie did a heck of a job.