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Still battered, Florida trailer parks await Wilma

Residents of the Pine Acres trailer park in Florida are still recovering from Hurricane Charley as they await and dread Wilma.
Daun Daubenmeyer takes a break Thursday from preparing his trailer in Pine Acres, Fla. for Wilma. He bought the trailer when it was damaged by Hurricane Charley last year.Wilfredo Lee / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some thoughts on hurricanes from the residents of Pine Acres, a trailer park along Florida’s southwestern coast that was obliterated by Hurricane Charley 14 months ago — and now awaits Wilma with dread:

  • It is worth remembering that Category 2 or 3 hurricanes make the walls of a mobile home expand and contract like an accordion. (This is not a problem with Category 4 or 5 storms, since walls tend to disappear rather quickly with wind speeds in excess of 130 mph.)
  • Aluminum carports, likewise, make excellent projectiles.
  • Do not bet money on where a hurricane will come ashore, no matter how confident your favorite weatherman sounds on TV. (Many a gamble was lost here in ’04, after experts confidently predicted Charley would hit Tampa, 90 miles to the north.)

From the shade of his carport on Bernadean Boulevard, beside a spanking new 2005 Fleetwood model double-wide trailer, Guy Webb tells a visitor he can’t stress enough the value of that last pearl of wisdom.

“The scientists can tell whether there’s water on Mars or not, but they can’t tell where a hurricane is going to go,” says Webb, 67, from Sheppardsville, Ky. “I still can’t understand why that is.”

Herndon Bragg, 68, nods in agreement with his neighbor. He leans back in a garden chair, his feet resting on sawdust near sheets of plywood that Webb has spent the morning sizing to fit the windows and doors, and adds:

“If you ask me, that’s the worst thing about this Hurricane Wilma — the waiting around for it,” says Bragg, once a coal miner in West Virginia. “All they’re saying is that it’s going to turn and hit southwest Florida. But southwest Florida is a big place. If I knew exactly where it was going, I’d finish getting my windows and doors boarded up, and get on out of here.”

Leaving — again
As it happens, a number of dwellers of this community of largely 55-and-older transplants and snowbirds had already left, or are packing to leave, and doing it with a resignation of the already vanquished.

They are leaving behind about 100 aluminum-and-wood trailers, nearly all of them new or heavily refurbished in the wake of Charley. They put their homes and one-story, bingo hall/potluck parlor back together once, after much sweat and heartache. But many doubt they’ll have the stomach to do it all again.

“I got me a new home here, and I just got it all squared away,” says Webb, a retired truck driver, looking at the fresh siding of his 24-by-40 trailer. “If the storm comes and tears this one up, well, that’s it — there will be a bare lot for sale, and it’ll be mine.”

He and another neighbor, Jerry Squires, 66, a divorced boiler mechanic from Vermont who had to quit working in 1998 due to spinal injuries, readied their clothes, hospital records, property titles and beer coolers for a drive up I-75 to northern Florida, or beyond.

Squires is still living at 6823 Bernadean Blvd., on a lot that’s empty except for a single citrus tree and a tiled, porch slab that Charley left behind. But he’s doing it inside an 8-by-30-foot “travel trailer,” courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

To use it, Squires had to sign a paper agreeing to abandon Pine Acres if another hurricane came along. (He rode out Charley, and FEMA didn’t want him to do that again.) In truth, no legal document was necessary to ensure his departure; his memories of Charley are incentive enough.

He remembers, quite clearly, the moment Charley first struck: The tree outside seemed to sling a tangerine through his window. Then his screened porch lifted off into the clouds — and then his carport, gutters, doors and roof peeled away, in screeching, rapid succession.

No possessions to lose
Uprooting will be painless in at least one sense: Squires owns nothing of sentimental value anymore, not since Charley swept his collection of Hank Williams, Hank Snow and Stonewall Jackson LPs into oblivion.

“For weeks, even months after Charley, you didn’t know where you’d be from one day to the next,” he says, and takes a pull on a can of Milwaukee’s Best. “I look at all of this as just more of the same.”

It’s a lot tougher, though, for Beatrice Davis, 77, a widow for 10 years who this past week was putting the final decorating touches on her spanking new, tan-colored trailer.

She has new ceramic tile in the kitchen, new champagne-colored wall-to-wall in the den, all new appliances, wallpaper, sofas and recliners, and that lovely, woody smell of new cherrywood cabinets.

About all she needed to do was hang up a framed flower print on the wall of the den and hook up the cable — which actually happened when the cable guy turned up on Thursday, days before Wilma’s projected landfall.

“All this new stuff, and now here we are, getting ready for another beating,” she says, softly. “I haven’t even used one of the beds yet.” Will this new house — which is supposedly built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane — hold up better than her other home, a 1971, three-bedroom, two bath, doublewide that went with the wind?

“We’ll see,” Davis says.

Actually, she worries more about what Wilma may do the human chemistry of the neighborhood.

Trailer park community changing
Before Charley, Pine Acres was largely a community for soon-to-be retirees and the elderly. After Charley, “a lot of the old owners didn’t come back. They just sold their empty lots to younger people, some with kids, and that was that. Some of the new owners built homes here that they haven’t seen yet — and now, might not see again.”

Around the corner, past yards with newly planted palms and new mailboxes, Daun Daubenmeyer, 40, is working on a trailer battered by Charley that he picked up cheaply from a couple in their 60s who’d had enough of hurricanes.

An hour earlier, Daubenmeyer, an architectural designer, got lucky: He arrived at the Home Depot just as a tractor-trailer loaded with lumber pulled up to the store. Now he’s feverishly working to shore up his new abode, adding a triple beam down the middle of the roof, wall supports and metal straps secured in the ground that he hopes will keep the roof from acting like a kite.

“We lost my other house in Port Charlotte to Charley, so this time I’m not taking any chances,” he says, mopping sweat from his brow with a forearm. “I’ll work nonstop, up until the storm comes, to tie this house down good.”

Then, he and his girlfriend and child planned to hop in his sports car and race away from the coast along Route 17 to a friend’s house. There, inside a concrete and steel bunker, Daubenmeyer will wait and pray for some pure, dumb luck.