Hurricane Ian destroyed homes and exacerbated the housing crisis for thousands

ESTERO, Fla. — The billions of dollars in damage caused by Hurricane Ian have exacerbated an already pressing housing crisis for Florida, with thousands of displaced residents unsure where they will live in one of the nation’s most expensive states.

On Monday, about 1,700 people remained in emergency shelters, many of them evacuated before their homes were either leveled by the 150 mph winds or rendered uninhabitable by a storm surge that flooded large parts of the state — leaving nearly 850,000 residents still without power for five days after the hurricane made landfall. Others stayed temporarily with family or friends, while some with few options remained in poor conditions inside damaged houses.

In a state of luxury high-rises and multimillion-dollar homes with sweeping views of the surrounding waterfront, the hardest hit will be residents on fixed incomes and working poor families who form the backbone of Florida’s economy, affordable housing advocates said.

“It’s a tragedy for them, and it’s also a tragedy for the entire community, which has already suffered from not having people be able to live where they work,” said Jamie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition. which earlier this year estimated that there is a government shortfall of 500,000 affordable homes for lower- and middle-income families.

“We were already in crisis before Ian came along,” she said.

State officials said 68 people died as a result of the storm, a number they said included two deaths from Charlotte County. However, officials there said 23 people were directly or indirectly killed by the storm. Authorities have said they expect the number to rise as more searches and autopsies are completed.

The breadth of the problem for survivors was on display inside the Hertz Arena entertainment center in Estero, now one of several community centers operating in the state for hurricane victims.

Several hundred people milled around or lay on donated inflatable mattresses inside the stadium, normally home to the Florida Everblades minor league ice hockey team.

A family of five camped near one of the beer stands, while several huddled near a chrome statue of a hockey player swinging his stick. Everywhere was the sound of dogs barking or babies crying – mixed with the heavy smell of a bunch of people who hadn’t bathed since Ian leveled their community last week.

Peggy Delaney, 71, had sought refuge with her three cats in one of the stadium’s stands just above where a girl cuddled with a stuffed elephant on a mattress her family had placed in the penalty box of the emptied rink.

“$169 per night!? I can’t afford that,” Delaney said aloud as she scrolled through the Airbnb options on her iPad.

She arrived at the arena Friday after being rescued from the Fort Myers condo she and a friend bought in June. On Wednesday, during the storm, she watched three meters of water seep into her unit – enough to raise her fridge and an antique chest of drawers.

Now, with nowhere else to go and Social Security checks making up most of her income, the retired office administrator feels trapped in a different way.

She is waiting to hear whether her homeowner’s insurance will cover the damage to the condo and whether the flood insurance claim she filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that morning will lead to temporary housing.

“They said within 20 days they might be able to set me up somewhere,” Delaney said, referring to FEMA. “I’m hoping the prices will drop so I can buy something, but I’m afraid we won’t get any money out of our apartment now.”

She paused and added, “I haven’t been able to cry until I came here.”

Out in the lobby, Oscar Garcia stared at nothing in particular as he sat on his inflatable mattress. His wife, Irene Garcia, was sweeping away some trash near their three children — ages 2, 10 and 15.

Oscar Garcia, 32, said their Fort Myers Beach apartment was completely flooded when they returned after the storm. Mold was already gathering on the walls and there was nothing else to save, he said.

They were paying $1,200 a month for that home, a price that was already a stretch, said Garcia, a warehouse worker for a roofing company. Last he looked, monthly rents for comparably sized apartments were in the $2,000 range.

“I’ve called everyone I could think of for help” with housing options, he said. “You can only make so many calls.”

Jeannette Morris, 70, had a different problem. She was already homeless when Ian hit, a situation that began in June after the rent for the single-wide trailer she had been living in went up to $1,000 a month from $728. Now, as she saw it, everyone around her was more competitive for the limited low-income housing she has applied for.

While living on Social Security for several years, Morris said, “I was afraid of being homeless and now look at me.”

“But I’m not alone now,” she added with a sad laugh as she gestured to the displaced families around her. “I have lots of company. Lots and lots of company.”

Housing experts say the race for new homes is likely to drive up prices in an already overheated property market.

In some areas of Southwest Florida, homes that were not affected by the storm are still renting for as much as $5,000 per month. month, while two-bedroom apartments cost $2,000 per month. month.

Even people who aren’t sucked into the storm’s debris will be affected in some way, said Chelsea Plaisance, lead organizer for Lee Interfaith for Empowerment, an affordable housing advocacy group in the Fort Myers area, which suffered the brunt of the hurricane damage .

“Anybody in the rental market is going to see prices go up because of all the other people who are now going to get into the rental market,” Plaisance said. “It’s going to push out a whole group of people who were already marginalized.”

Kristen Santero, 50, doesn’t consider herself in that category. But after five feet of water poured into the beachfront house in the Island Park area of ​​Fort Myers that she and boyfriend David DiGiacomo had just renovated after buying it in April, Santero wasn’t sure what their options were either.

They moved in with some friends just before the storm hit. But with three cats, a dog and five children between them, they weren’t sure how long that situation would last.

“Honestly, I’m not super positive about being able to find anything,” said Santero, who expected a fight for insurance money after filing a flood insurance claim earlier this week. “You’re looking at thousands of people trying to find displacement housing. I think it’s going to be very difficult.”

For some, the damage to their homes from the hurricane has left them with few options.

That was the case at Orange Harbor Mobile Home and RV Park, a “55 plus community” in Fort Myers Shores with 365 trailers — 90 percent of which were either damaged or destroyed when the nearby Caloosahatchee River flooded the area.

The water, and a foul-smelling black mud that washed in with it, toppled over refrigerators, chewed through hardwood floors and flooded electrical outlets. The storm also compromised the park’s water supply and sanitation system.

Located on an isthmus between the Caloosahatchee and the Orange River, Orange Harbor had given many of its residents a life they say they likely won’t be able to duplicate anywhere else.

Many properties had docks and it was only an hour long boat ride to the Gulf of Mexico. In winter, manatees migrate to the mangrove forest that surrounds the community. Orange Harbor is also within a mile of Interstate 75, West Florida’s largest north-south route, and many residents said they were there to be closer to family members who live throughout Florida.

Before the storm, developers had pressured Orange Harbor homeowners to sell the property, which would have allowed many of them to win.

Timothy and Susan Paul, who are shareholders in the homeowners association, said a developer recently offered to buy the property for $84 million.

But homeowners voted 100-45 not to sell the land, Susan Paul, 71, said.

The hurricane hit just five days after Susan Paul resigned from her job as head custodian at Fort Myers High School.

With their trailers now destroyed, the couple and several other residents said they are considering moving further inland to areas of Florida already experiencing rapid population growth.

“There’s a lot of nice places in the central part of the state, around Orlando,” said Timothy Paul, 77. “And it’s probably cheaper — Fort Myers has become very expensive over the years, and that’s kind of the point, for people who just can’t live here.”

Most Orange Harbor residents don’t have insurance because they say insurance companies don’t offer insurance for older mobile homes.

Some said they plan to walk away from their property and give up a dream of a debt-free retirement. Other residents continue to live in their trailers, choosing to endure the lack of a functioning sanitation system because they say they don’t think they can start over in Florida’s unforgiving housing market.

Gail Stagner, 72, paid $18,000 for her trailer three years ago, a move that allowed her to leave the lease and cut her hours as a paralegal to four days a week.

Now, with river mud clinging to most of her belongings, she’s ready for someone to tow her trailer away and go back to renting, she said.

“But the rent is sky high, so I just don’t know,” Stagner said. “Maybe I’ll just go back to working five days a week.”

Bob Lawley, 69, puffed on cigarettes while on his golf cart to stay away from the stifling heat inside his trailer, where the carpets were still soaked from the flood.

Lawley moved from suburban Philadelphia into his trailer in April after he paid $30,000 for it.

Partially paralyzed after he broke vertebrae in a fall, he said he had $13,000 in savings, not enough to start over.

“My plan is to stay because I like the river and I go down in my wagon and watch the sunset,” he said. “If I went back to Philadelphia, I think the cold would kill me.”

As his wife bathed him in a bucket in front of their trailer, Charlie Dupont couldn’t get over how quickly Ian changed his life.

Three days before the storm made landfall, Dupont, 84, and his wife, Mary Ellen, 71, were ready to close on a $147,000 offer someone made to buy the trailer they had spent three years fixing up , a ticket to the bigger home. they often fantasized about.

Now, that deal is probably dead, said Dupont, stinging from the reversal of fortune.

The couple seemed split on where they would live next. She wants to stay in Florida and say “Good, bad or whatever, you’ll never make me leave.”

He said he is open to the idea of ​​trying his luck elsewhere.

“If it had been sold, it would have been perfect for us,” Dupont said of the trailer as his wife tried to scrape the back clean of the sticky mud that seemed to be everywhere. “But then whammo! And now I don’t know why God hates us so much.”

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