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FL disasters worsen social woes

Lack of affordable housing has become a 'second disaster' for hundreds of hurricane survivors in Florida, said a religious leader Friday.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | January 13, 2006

Lack of affordable housing has become a second disaster for hundreds of hurricane survivors in Florida, said a religious leader Friday.

The Rev. Russell Meyer, interim executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, said the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes have had a dramatic impact on affordable housing. "Florida - in normal weather, under regular conditions - is experiencing rapid growth," he explained.

Florida's population grew by more than 400,000 during the year 2005 alone, according to the University of Florida. It represents one of the largest population increases in the state's history.

Even before disasters entered the picture, said Meyer, "affordable housing was already on the map as a major social concern. And now with the impact of disasters, people are being dislocated while their property is being repaired, plus Katrina survivors are living in Florida wondering whether or not they'll be able to go home."

Population growth - combined with disasters - has exacerbated an already-existing problem in an unprecedented way, he said. "I've been involved in disaster response since Hurricane Hugo, and I've not seen affordable housing rising to to the top of the concern list from the disaster point of view before. It's a tremendous problem."

And it's not just a statistical issue for the politicians, he added - it strikes at the hearts of families. "If you've been involved in providing shelter during a disaster, you know family life is very dislocated."

In Florida, he said, the period of dislocation has been extended, for some people more than two years. "To have that occur over an extended period of time is very, very difficult. In some places, where the impact is not widespread across the community, that community can open up its homes and its hearts. Then the situation is more tolerable. But where you have a large community that's been dislocated by the loss of housing, people are simply unable to find meaningful housing. Suddenly kids are not going to school. Friendships are dislocated. People are spending more money, time and effort getting back and forth to work. They have daycare issues. It reaches a point for people who have limited resources where their resources just break."

Hurricane survivors face fluctuating social networks, too. "There is a stable population in FLorida," said Meyer. "But every year it's being diluted in percentage by the influx of people. At a parish I served in for 10 years, one of the local high school teachers asked who was born in Florida. Two of the 30 kids in the classroom said they were born in Florida."

New communities sometimes seem to spring up overnight, said Meyer, and sometimes social resentment can build between newcomers and long-time residents.

"One of the problems is that people who move into the state are not aware of pre-existing issues. New communities tend to be separated from where the older issues are. A kind of resentment builds up in the community between newcomers being asked to provide social services for long-standing issues that they were never apprised of when they bought their home and settled down."

That means when a hurricane strikes - and destroys a lot of housing or disrupts lives in other ways - weaknesses in social infrastructure are magnified.

Meyer cited an example: Under 'normal times,' he said, the organization Florida Impact provides a helpline for people eligible for food stamps. Florida Impact's contract with the state provides for a regular volume of about 600 people a month calling for help with the food stamp application process, he said.

In October and November 2005, said Meyer, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) directed 8,000 or more people in each of those two months to the Florida Impact hotline for emergency food stamps. "Then Florida Impact had to develop a whole new program for how to handle that. That is not what their contract had mandated."

Too often, people assume disaster survivors have recovered after a couple of months, said Meyer, or they think disasters affect somebody else. "Who are these people?" he asked. "Well, they're the hotel staff. They're the busboys at the restaurants. They're the maintenance crew at the theme parks. They're the population that make the tourist industry work. And they have been deeply, adversely affected by the hurricanes."

Emergency food stamps issued during October and November are good for three months, added Meyer - and for some those three months are nearly up. "We have no idea what the ongoing need will be for people who have been dislocated."

FEMA has also set a Feb. 7 deadline for evacuees in Florida to leave hotels.

Faith-based and voluntary groups in Florida have been working together to create an ongoing long-term response to issues such as affordable housing. "I don't see disasters on the wane," said Meyer. "We're going to see even more severe impacts."

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