Florida Keys’ homeless residents ask FEMA for mobile homes

While Key West plans to reopen its port to cruise ships Sunday, many residents in the Lower Keys are dealing with the reality of being homeless. 

The opening of the port is important, because the livelihood of many businesses depends on the regular arrival of cruise ship tourists. 

In Big Pine Key and Marathon, many were hoping to land pre-fabricated housing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the industry was still struggling to meet the demand of Hurricane Harvey in Texas. 

The federal government auctioned off disaster-response trailers at fire-sale prices just before Harvey devastated southeast Texas, reducing an already diminished supply of mobile homes ahead of what could become the nation’s largest-ever housing mission.

More than 100 2017-model Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers were sold over the two days before the Category 4 hurricane landed in the Gulf Coast. The trailers were designated to be sold through Aug. 28, after floodwaters sent thousands of Texans onto rooftops and into shelters.

The auctions — about 300 since the beginning of the year — have left FEMA with a standing fleet of only 1,700 units. The agency has put out bids for another 4,500, but officials could not say when they would be ready to meet needs arising from Harvey, Irma and potentially future storms.

“There’s a vast chasm between what they can supply and what is actually needed,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, adding that he found the trailer auctions an “unfortunate decision.”

FEMA officials said that the units sold had all been used to house survivors of last year’s floods in Southern Louisiana, who returned them with damages that made them unfit for redeployment.

“The ones you will hear about being auctioned are the used models that we’ve determined it’s not cost-effective to refurbish. We’re very rigid and strict about what we’ll refurbish and it’s got to be something that quite frankly any one of us would be comfortable living in and willing to put our families into,” Byrne said.

Yet the 300 trailers sold on the Government Services Agency’s online auction since the beginning of the year 2017 were advertised either without problems, or with only minor damage, such as flat tires, buckling trim or missing furniture, GSA records showed. FEMA said trailers also go to the auction block because of leaks, roach infestations and odor left by cigarette smoke.

FEMA officials said the trailers it had recently ordered will cost the agency around $40,000 for a one-bedroom. By contrast, GSA sold a 2017-model trailer Aug. 23 with damage it described as normal wear and tear and low or flat tires for less than $5,000.

FEMA deployed 144,000 trailers after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but started selling off its stock in 2007 when the trailers became symbols of the troubled federal response after lawsuits accused some of those units of being riddled with high levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde.

Sales were halted after tests by the Centers for Disease Control in 2008 showed formaldehyde leaching from the trailers’ pressed-wood products. The auctions resumed after a court order was lifted in 2010, and Katrina-era units resurfaced on Native American reservations, in North Dakota’s oilfields and in Texas, following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to Chemical Heritage Foundation fellow Nicholas Shapiro.

In 2011, FEMA announced that all of its trailers would be built with wood products that met emission standards set by the California Air Resources Board. Units rolled out in 2016 ranged in size from one to three bedrooms and were equipped with smoke detectors, fire sprinklers and central heating and air conditioning, with hookups for washing machines and cable TV.

FEMA has auctioned off trailers during disasters before.

As Superstorm Sandy churned up the Atlantic coast in 2012, dozens of trailers sat idle in a supermarket parking lot in Northeastern Pennsylvania, — about two hours from the New Jersey coast.

The trailers were deployed for a flood the previous year, but many went unused and instead wound up on the government auction block at a fraction of their original cost, landing on the resale market or being refurbished for personal use.


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Key West businesses gradually reopen after Hurricane Irma

Duval Street is slowly coming back to life after Hurricane Irma.

Although not bustling with tourists, people are starting to trickle into bars. 

Sloppy Joe’s Bar opened for the first time in two weeks Thursday.

“We had anywhere between 6 and 8 inches of water in the bar,” manager Rita MacMacain said.

It’s not just for locals to start enjoying some downtime, but also so staffers could start working again. 

“It has been truly amazing how quickly things have turned around and gotten up and just trying to get people back to some normalcy in their lives,” MacMacain said.

When Hurricane Wilma impacted Florida in 2005, Fantasy Fest was canceled. That’s not the case this time around. Locals said the businesses depend on a big event like Fantasy Fest to bring in much-needed revenue.

“We’ve got a lot of these construction guys and contractor guys, you know, they have to eat. They like to drink beer, so they’ll be pumping into the economy,” one resident told Local 10 News. 

Businesses also depend on cruise ships that are a regular sight at Mallory Square. The first cruise ship is expected back in Key West by Sunday.

It’s definitely progress, but there’s still a long way to go.

Some hotels still can’t open because of severe damage. 

Thai Life Floating Restaurant lost its roof during the storm. Capt. Tony’s Saloon, the oldest bar in Florida, is expected to reopen in a week.

Key West gas stations are also finally fueling up, and businesses are posting signs outside to let people know they’re open. 

Despite the setback, many locals know it could have been so much worse.

“Key West proper, besides tree damage, we fared very well,” MacMacain said. “We were very blessed.”

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FEMA vows to remain in Keys for as long as needed after Irma

As the recovery process from Hurricane Irma continues for residents in the Florida Keys, thousands have already applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A mobile FEMA unit is set up on Simonton Street in Key West with representatives on site to help answer questions and guide survivors through the process.

“A lot of our response has to do with dealing with everybody in the general public and helping them understand what kind of disaster assistance they need,” FEMA representative Kevin Sur said.

For many, it’s overwhelming. Many are dealing with FEMA for the first time, waiting in long lines just to apply for assistance. They’ll have to wait another week before they’re contacted by a representative.

Part of the challenge is that many Keys residents live on boats, many of which were destroyed in the storm.

“We’re going to need to know, not only the address of the marina, but we need to directly specify where their boat was — we need to know what dock, what slip — so that we can, you know, identify them and speed their recovery,” FEMA representative James Taylor said.

FEMA’s mobile unit will soon become a disaster recovery center, with the promise of being there as long as it is needed.

Elaine Duke, acting secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, recently visited the Monroe County Emergency Operations Center with Gov. Rick Scott. She assured residents that FEMA will continue to receive funding to help residents return to normal.

“We have no indication that we won’t have everything we need from Washington, D.C.,” she said.

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Monroe County needs your help locating families of six dead men

Nine days after Hurricane Irma, Monroe County authorities reported deputies had yet to find the families of six men who were found dead after the storm.

They had not been able to identify four and had not been able to contact the relatives of a 66-year-old man and a 68-year-old man who were identified. 

Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputy Becky Herrin said detectives were searching for the families of David Speraw and Robert Owen Wheeler, Jr.

“We are hoping by releasing his name someone will be able to give us information which might lead to his next of kin,” Herrin said in a statement. 

Speraw lived in Tavernier and died after he was released from the hospital. Owen died while in shelter at Marathon High School during the storm. Herrin said they believe both men died of chronic medical conditions. 

Deputies said the four unidentified white men were “possibly” in their 60s and had gray hair and a beard. One was found in Stock Island, the other in Big Pine Key and another in Marathon. Authorities said the fourth man died at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center. 

The others reported storm-related deaths were Roy Vincent Pardee, 60, James Armantrout and Marcia Angelena Rodriguez. Pardee died in a car crash during the evacuation. Armount was found dead in Shark Key and Rodriguez in Marathon. 

Herrin was asking anyone with information to send an email to jnorman@keysso.net or call 469-610-7017. 


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Marathon authorities want to know if you lost this after Hurricane Irma

There were two old photos. One was shot in 1957. It showed a boy who had attended Schmitt School. The other photograph was in color and showed three people who appeared to be related — possibly two parents with their little girl. 

Hurricane Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key Sept. 10. Authorities reported nine storm-related deaths. It obliterated many homes in Marathon and tossed boats around in Big Pine Key. After they were allowed to return home Sunday, many residents learned they had lost it all. 

The clean up continued nine days after the storm, and when the two photos turned up in debris outside of a government building, the government employees knew they could be someone’s treasure. 

Monroe County News tweeted Wednesday afternoon: “Anyone know the owner?”

Local government employees were keeping the precious photos at Monroe County’s Government Center at 2798 Overseas Highway in Marathon. For more information, call 305-289-6036.



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Family-owned Robbie’s optimistic about future after Hurricane Irma

On any given hot Florida Keys day, patrons at Robbie’s would be sitting by the bay, cocktails in hand, or lying down on the docks feeding tarpon. But that’s not how the family-owned business in Islamorada looks today.

“We were very, very concerned,” general manager Cailin Reckwerdt told Local 10 News after Hurricane Irma. “When we came over that bridge for the first time as a family, we were relieved to see what was left.”

Like most businesses, Robbie’s sustained damage from Irma’s wrath. In this case, the strong winds blew off each and every dock. The docks were used by tourists and locals to hang bait out by the water and wait for giant tarpon.

But the strong-willed family is hard at work to rebuild the docks. Reckwerdt said there is a silver lining.

“The pilings are intact, which makes building the docks much easier,” she said.

Robbie’s was founded in the 1970s and has been a staple in Islamorada.

“We have such a love for this place, and yes, my grandpa started it,” Reckwerdt said. “I want to let that legacy live on.”

The property lost most of its trees that once offered cool shade under a hot sun. One thing Robbie’s didn’t lose is the tarpon, which have already been spotted near the docks.

Besides the docks, most of Robbie’s fared well. The roof is still intact and so too, surprisingly, is some of the money patrons have stapled to the wooden structure through the years.

One such dollar bill signifies a couple’s first date and then their marriage, perhaps a sign that Irma is no match for everlasting resilience.

Robbie’s is expected to reopen in a little over a month.

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