Irma evacuees in limbo as Florida struggles to cope
It’s been a week since Margherita Lopez has taken a shower. She’s been shuffled to three different shelters since evacuating her home in Key West last week as Hurricane Irma approached. She’s slept on a gymnasium floor without a cot, has struggled to find food, and says she feels like emergency management officials have forgotten her.
‘‘It’s been a nightmare . . . there should have been a better plan,’’ said Lopez, 43, who fled an abusive relationship and entered a women’s shelter and later a communal facility in Key West run by the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition.
Lopez isn’t alone in her frustration. Across Florida, local, state and federal emergency officials are struggling to assist the flood of evacuees, many of whom are seeking temporary or permanent shelter from a storm that cast a wide swath across the state. Even Keys residents who have a home to return to have been left without power, water and sewerage service.
The state said yesterday about 7500 people were in nearly 100 shelters, and that the Red Cross planned to open four shelters in the Keys once the area was properly surveyed.
Wearing a donated Mickey Mouse T-shirt, Lopez sat in a room on Florida International University’s campus that had air conditioning but smelled like a pet store. She shared the space with about 30 fellow evacuees from the same organisation, their room lined with green cots with Red Cross blankets. Three shopping carts full of donated water, canned food and clothes sat in the entryway.
Everyone sleeping there is being housed together because they have been deemed to have ‘‘special needs’’. Lopez is bipolar and has panic attacks.
Michael Todd, 63, is part of the same group but is not considered special needs. He spent the night with hundreds of other Keys residents at a pavilion on fairgrounds next to the university. Everyone there had a cot, blankets, hot meals, snacks, showers and toiletries, and there was even a playground for children.
Todd evacuated a week ago, but it took him and dozens of others who evacuated from the Keys several days to get settled at the fairgrounds.
When they first arrived at FIU’s gymnasium last Friday, it was chaos, he said. ‘‘We were immediately told there were no cots, no blankets.’’
They slept on the floor in a cold gym where the lights stayed on all night. Then they were moved to a nearby building, and were again told there were no cots. A Red Cross worker offered Todd a piece of cardboard to lie on. Some people got squares of carpet, he said.
Monroe County, the Keys county government, has designated the gym in the Miami suburbs as its emergency shelter. Todd said he had repeatedly asked where Monroe County emergency officials were and got no answers.
‘‘Monroe County officials dropped the ball big time . . . they weren’t there, physically in body or in communication, and the Red Cross was throwing up their arms saying this isn’t their baby.’’
The county has been relying on bare-bones staff since Irma made landfall there on Monday, decimating parts of the area. Communication has been limited.
Students are slowly trickling back on to the campus, as classes are scheduled to resume on Tuesday.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has given few details about its plan for shortterm and long-term housing, saying only that trailers like those used in Hurricane Katrina will be used only as a last resort. Instead, FEMA may help to pay for hotels, apartments, temporary housing and quick-fixes to help people move back into their homes.
Liliana Caminero, a 54-year-old nurse, filled out her FEMA application on Friday, saying her Miami apartment is uninhabitable. She had complained to her landlord for months to repair the roof, warning that bright orange spots showed up on her ceiling every time it rained. After Irma swept through, large chunks of drywall hung from the ceiling, leaving a soggy, mouldy, dangerous mess.
She has tried to book into a hotel but can’t find one available for nearly two more weeks. She could stay with her son in New York, but that would mean quitting her job. She wants to break her lease, but says her landlord is threatening to fine her, and she worries that this could be a strike against her if she tries rent a new place.
‘‘I feel like I am alone in the world, like I’m on the border to being homeless,’’ she said.
Two friends made homeless by Hurricane Irma shelter at their campsite in Cudjoe Key, Florida. Thousands of people in the state are still seeking temporary or permanent shelter a week after the devastating storm.
People collect food, water, and supplies provided by the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit at a distribution point in Key West, Florida.