Irma evac­uees in limbo as Florida strug­gles to cope

Sunday Star-Times - - WORLD -

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.

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