Hurricane season blows in again as survivors still ride storm of last year's calamity
Jamie Wilson in Punta Gorda
Gil Echevarrias never expected to end up living in a trailer park. The 58-year-old retired steelworker from Rhode Island was ordered by his doctor to escape the cold northern climate and head for the sun, so he and his wife gathered up their possessions and sank their nest egg into Charlotte county on the Gulf coast of Florida.
Three months after they arrived so did Hurricane Charley, blowing away the little place where Gil and Aida had planned to live out their retirement.
As the new hurricane season rolls in, forecast to be as destructive as the last, the couple are still living in what has become a notorious government-owned trailer park set up after the storms to house more than 500 families who had nowhere else to go.
"My arthritis has gone, but now I'm suffering from massive depression instead," Mr Echevarrias said.
The first named tropical storm of the season, Arlene, made landfall last weekend. The centre of the tempest missed Charlotte county, but tremendous thunderstorms that caused flooding reminded residents of what could be just around the corner. The tropical storm season began on June 1 and ends on November 30, and last year four hurricanes swamped Florida, causing about 130 deaths across the US and billions of dollars in damage.
In Punta Gorda the footprint of Hurricane Charley remains very much in evidence. Twisted petrol station signs, bent almost in half by the wind, line the main road into town; trees that should be heavy with foliage are bare; while every other house seems to have blue tarpaulin sheets instead of a roof in a vain attempt to keep out the worst of the weather.
In some areas, where properties were damaged beyond repair, the bulldozer remains the vehicle of choice, sweeping away the skeletons of buildings that were once people's homes.
Many of those whose houses and apartments were destroyed have ended up in Fema City, named after the federal emergency management agency that set up three trailer parks across Florida after last year's hurricanes. The residents of Fema City face the prospect of surviving the hurricane season living in the park, consisting of scores of identical white trailers lined up in rows along potholed dirt roads, made worse by the heavy rains.
But the cramped conditions, lack of amenities and low quality of the roads have not been the only challenges the residents have faced. The trailer park sits in the shadow of the county jail and, to the shock of law-abiding citizens like the Echevarriases, some of their new neighbours in Fema City would have been equally at home next door.
The police were called 175 times within two months. Now there is a permanent police presence on the gate and regular patrols to curb the crimewave, ranging from theft to drug dealing and vandalism, that left many of the older residents scared to leave their trailers at night.
Last week it emerged that the local meals on wheels service and pizza delivery companies were refusing to deliver inside the park, because of the state of the roads.
It was the poor who were hit hardest by the hurricane, and they continue to suffer the most. Charley wiped out much of the area's affordable housing; most of it built before more stringent and storm-proof building regulations were brought in the early 1990s. The destruction and subsequent lack of housing has trebled rents.
"You could get a decent two or three bedroom place for about $500 a month [£275] before," said Richard Stasney, a pastor with the Christian Missionary Alliance, whose church is a short walk from the trailer park. "Now you will be lucky to get the same type of place for $1,500."
Yvonne Ohle, 58, was at home with her daughter, Kim, 35, four grandchildren, a dog and two cats when Charley struck. It was supposed to miss Punta Gorda and hit Tampa, but somewhere out in the Gulf of Mexico the hurricane took a sharp right turn, barrelled across the bay and through the heart of the pretty seaside resort.
"I wasn't really scared until a tornado took off the corner of the house," Mrs Ohle said from the sitting room of one of the two trailers the family shares. They hid in the bathroom while the house was blown apart around them. By the time Charley left there was virtually nothing left. Like thousands of others in Florida, she had insured her house years ago, but the property boom meant the money the insurance company paid out was nowhere near enough to pay what the builders were demanding to put her house back up.
"We're here until they throw us out," she said. "We can't afford to rebuild, we can't afford the rent on anywhere else, so unless some fairy godmother comes along we ain't got nowhere to go."
Asked what she will do if another big hurricane heads in their direction, she pointed at the flimsy structure around her and replied: "Get out of here that's for sure. We'll get in the car and drive in the opposite direction. Miami, here we come."
Mrs Ohle is not alone in directing her anger at the state officials. "They can afford to buy a million-dollar tent to take the place of an auditorium they lost and they can afford to repair businesses and schools, but for people like us there is nothing."
Mr Echevarrias, who is hoping to secure a short-term tenancy on a flat with the help of his children before the next hurricane arrives, agreed.
"I have no complaints about Fema, but the state politicians should be lined up," he said. "There has been no local response. I've been in the military, I've seen what this country can do, I know the resources, and I cannot understand how they have been getting away with doing nothing."
Source: The Guardian