PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — As people left homeless by Hurricane Charley began their second week living in makeshift shelters, federal officials pledged Sunday that more substantial temporary housing was on the way.
Still, it was unclear exactly how much help would be available for storm victims as officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave conflicting information.
The exact number of homeless is not known, although the Red Cross in recent days has housed about 1,100 people in the area that stretches from southwest Florida to near Orlando. Thousands of other people are living in damaged homes or with friends or family.
For many of those displaced residents, Sunday was moving day, as shelters that had been open in schools were shut down to prepare for the beginning of classes Aug. 30.
FEMA officials said the agency will have about 8,000 travel trailers and mobile homes available to house people who have no other options. Another 1,500 apartments and homes might be available for rentals to storm victims, the agency estimates.
About 400 trailers have been brought to the disaster zone and another 500 are en route, said Ken Burris, the agency’s southeast regional director. “We are housing people as we speak,” Burris said.
But only about 20 to 25 people actually have taken up residence in FEMA trailers — and confusion reigned in the agency’s public information effort.
Local emergency management officials began a news conference Sunday telling people not to call FEMA to get tarps to cover damaged roofs because there were no tarps available. Later, Burris denied there was a shortfall and urged people to call.
“We don’t want people to stop calling FEMA if they have a need,” Burris said.
Within its own ranks, FEMA also differed Sunday on whether a trailer park for storm refugees was up and running. FEMA spokesman Dick Gifford told reporters that a park was operating at an undisclosed location with 200 to 300 trailers already there.
$20 million in housing assistance
But later Burris said there was no such place, only that FEMA had found a trailer park in Charlotte County that was partially built and needed utilities before trailers could be set up. It would be at least a month or two before anyone could live there, he said.
FEMA has doled out nearly $20 million in housing assistance to the 41,200 families who have sought aid, the agency said.
For storm victims, the answer to most of their questions about aid was simply “wait and see.”
“I’m basically straight-up homeless,” said Gretchen Ward-Martin, who was staying at a Red Cross shelter in Port Charlotte after the house she was living in was destroyed. Two of Ward-Martin’s daughters were with her, but four other children were living with relatives in other states until the family can find permanent housing.
Nine days after the storm, Ward-Martin said she hasn’t been able to get through to FEMA to find out if she is covered. To make matters worse, Ward-Martin’s car was wrecked in a traffic accident Saturday and now she can’t get to her job at a local Arby’s restaurant.
Despite the upheaval, she was calm recounting her difficulties.
“You can’t feel sorry for yourself, everyone else is going through it too,” she said.
'Our business is ruined'
At a FEMA center in Port Charlotte, long lines of people sought aid on Sunday. Few were leaving with any idea of what the future might bring.
“Nobody’s offering anything,” said Annette Fiedler, whose family was told that FEMA couldn’t help them until after their homeowners insurance settled the claim.
Her six-member extended family is crowded into a small apartment. John Fiedler, who supported them as a self-employed estate adviser, said he won’t be working anytime soon and their savings will be gone.
“Our business is ruined, our home is destroyed,” Annette Fiedler said. “Everyone is waiting on somebody else.”
Cleo Howell, a FEMA public information officer in Port Charlotte, said storm victims were being told that the agency is putting together a housing strategy, but the details aren’t yet complete.
“What we are telling them is we don’t know for sure,” Howell said.
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