A Year Later, Hurricane Victims Remain Homeless

The Atlantic hurricane season begins today — even as tens of thousands of people remain homeless after last year's hurricanes. Repairs have been slow going, and rental housing is scarce. Many hurricane victims are still living in more than 10,000 temporary trailers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Today Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed legislation intended to prepare for the hurricane season, which officially starts today. The start of that season finds tens of thousands of people still homeless after last year's hurricanes. Repairs have been slow going and rental housing scarce. Many victims are still living in 10,000 temporary trailers set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT reporting:

Scattered throughout Pensacola, Florida, there are little villages of white FEMA trailers, in the parking lot of an old home supply store, near the Navy base and planted in an open swamp area on the west side of town.

(Soundbite of dishes being washed)

ELLIOTT: Inside one of the trailers, Kimberly Shoemaker is doing her dishes by hand. But you won't hear her complaining about not having a dishwasher.

Ms. KIMBERLY SHOEMAKER (Hurricane Victim): Once you've stayed in an RV for six months, this is like the place.

ELLIOTT: The Shoemakers are new here. Until about a month ago, the family of six, with four children ages two to eight, were staying in an even smaller travel trailer while they waited for repairs on the four-bedroom house they rented. Then they learned their landlord was selling the house. Shoemaker says she panicked when she couldn't find anywhere else to move, and then called FEMA for help.

Ms. SHOEMAKER: I mean, it would have been either this or a shelter.

ELLIOTT: But even finding shelter space in Pensacola is tough. Relief agencies report record calls for help, but must turn people away because bed space is full. One shelter is sleeping some people on the pews in its chapel.

Pastor LON ROBERTS (President, EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless): The face of homelessness has changed greatly.

ELLIOTT: Pastor Lon Roberts is president of the EscaRosa Coalition on the Homeless. He says the region has seen a 38 percent increase in its homeless population since Ivan.

Pastor ROBERTS: We still have people who are executives. We have teachers. We have nurses. We have firemen and policemen who are living in FEMA trailers or doubled up with other family members.

ELLIOTT: There are stories of families who spend their days in the park and nights in the car. One woman stayed in her hurricane-damaged home with only blue tarps for walls. At night, possums and raccoons would wander into her house.

The situation has also taken a toll on people's health. Doctors report having to remove mold from people's noses and ears because they stayed in water-damaged homes. And then there's the stress of living with friends or relatives, or being cramped into tiny living quarters for eight months, like Christy, who lives in a Fleetwood travel trailer with her husband and three girls in Orange Beach, Alabama.

(Soundbite of children playing)

CHRISTY (Hurricane Victim): It's been a real headache.

ELLIOTT: She trips over a tiny pink shoe. She tries to clear a space on the table for her oldest daughter's lessons. Christy has been home-schooling the sixth-grader after she had problems keeping up with assignments.

CHRISTY: They didn't seem to understand that, you know, we're in a mobile home. We can't--we don't have the room to make these big old projects or stuff like that.

ELLIOTT: The family's mobile home was destroyed by a falling tree in hurricane Ivan, and the city wouldn't let them replace it because of new zoning ordinances.

CHRISTY: We went in front of the board. They told us we had to build or get out of Orange Beach.

ELLIOTT: Building a home here was too expensive, so they're trying to build one in northwest Florida. In the meantime, they're staying in the FEMA travel trailer and depending on the community for help. Christy says it's been a big adjustment for a family that used to donate to the needy.

CHRISTY: I have never had to go ask anybody for anything until I had to go to the church, and then I felt funny about doing it. But you've got to have what you've got to have to survive. So, you know, you just let your ego go.

ELLIOTT: Other families find themselves in the same predicament. At Orange Beach Elementary School, the number of students receiving a free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch increased by a third after Ivan. School counselor Fran Drake says the community has started a program to send home backpacks of food so children won't be hungry over the weekend.

Ms. FRAN DRAKE (School Counselor, Orange Beach Elementary School): We include a Friday night meal. It might be a little can of SpaghettiOs and a healthy snack, maybe some raisins for dessert, and then a juice box.

ELLIOTT: Drake says she knows the food is appreciated by the thank yous she hears on Mondays, especially for the Slim Jims.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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