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FL Keys recovery faces challenges

BY PJ HELLER | BIG PINE KEY, Fla. | January 12, 1999

BIG PINE KEY, Fla. (Jan. 12, 1999) - A critical shortage of affordable

housing, contaminated wells, mental health issues and lack of money for

rebuilding, continue to hamper recovery efforts for residents in the Florida

Keys some 100 days after Hurricane Georges pounded the area.

That's the assessment provided by Mary Quirk, coordinator of the Paradise

Interfaith Network, and Keith Douglass, a former Monroe County commissioner

and head of the unmet needs coalition in the Keys.

Both agreed that while some progress has been made, it has been slow-going

as residents slog through the paperwork from the Federal Emergency

Management Agency (FEMA), the Small Business Administration and, in some

cases, their own insurance companies.

"The insurance companies, FEMA and SBA can just be nightmares sometimes for

people," Quirk noted.

"Part of what I do every day is to connect people with existing services to

try to help them through the FEMA process," she explained. "We try to get

them connected to people who can move them along."

Douglass said the unmet needs coalition was also somewhat slowed by FEMA

and SBA.

"We're still ascertaining what FEMA will continue to do and what SBA, in

terms of loans, will cover," he said. "I think it will be a better part of

a year before we're really back to speed on Big Pine Key."

The unmet needs coalition is currently split into three groups to deal with

administration (including legal, public relations and intergovernmental

issues), medical services/mental health and volunteer teams. The latter

committee is composed mostly of representatives from PIN. A fourth

committee to oversee resource distribution is expected to be formed soon,

he said.

Meantime, some Keys residents -- primarily on Big Pine Key which was most

severely impacted when Georges hit on Sept. 25 -- have apparently been

forced to leave the area because of the severe housing crunch, according to

both Douglass and Quirk. Many of those residents, who lived in mobile home

parks which were damaged or destroyed by the hurricane, worked in

low-paying jobs in the tourism industry.

Now, with the tourist season in full swing, what little housing had been

available for rent has become virtually nun-existent -- or priced way beyond

the means of local workers. Businesses, such as hotels and restaurants

which relied on local workers, have been scrambling to find help.

"You can't go anyplace down here without seeing signs, 'We're Hiring' or

'Help Needed,'" Quirk said. "The work force just isn't here. The problem is

there are just no places to live."

The housing shortage also was keeping away building contractors who might

otherwise have come to the area seeking building and construction work. The

result, Douglass said, is that local contractors are overwhelmed.

"You may be fortunate enough to get a loan but you may not be able to get a

contractor to come out," he said. "I know some who aren't taking new

customers. Even if they are, it could be six or seven months before they

get to you."

Recognizing that the housing shortage might also limit the number of

volunteers it could attract to help in the cleanup and rebuilding process,

PIN is relying on local churches to house and feed volunteers.

"All of the churches are participating," Quirk said. "It's just an amazing

cooperation among all the different churches. Everybody has come together."

The United Methodist Church in Marathon, for example, recently hosted 11

students from the Peace Lutheran Campus Center at the University of

Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The students, who drove to the Keys from the

snow-covered Midwest, helped do everything from clean up yards to cut down


A group of 17 people from the Christian Reform World Relief Committee was

in the Keys in December going door-to-door to conduct a needs assessment.

Two full-time volunteers, Ora and Jenny Kreider from the United Methodist

Committee on Relief, are also assisting in the relief efforts, Quirk noted.

And in mid-January, Quirk said she expected a group of retirees to arrive

in RVs in the Keys to volunteer their services. St. Peter's Catholic Church

on Big Pine Key was putting in RV hookups in its parking lot so the

volunteers would have a place to stay, she said.

Quirk said the next phase for PIN would be to help people rebuild their homes.

"After we get people through the paperwork and the permitting, what we want

to do is tap into local resources to do actual construction," she said.

The construction phase is still a few weeks away, she predicted. She added

that money is currently the biggest need.

"We are finding that people are really falling short in being able to

afford their reconstruction," she said. "Some of the people can afford some

of their (building) materials but can't afford the labor. The bulk of

what's needed is money to help people rebuild. Then, once their home is

rebuilt, money will be needed to buy furniture."

Recognizing the housing shortage, Monroe County officials approved a

measure to allow property owners to place recreational vehicles on their

land for up to one year while rebuilding is going on (a plan to bring in

more mobile homes from the Miami area was scrapped because of logistics and

legal issues, Douglass said). The unmet needs coalition has been working on

the RV solution.

It has also been seeking funds to help residents -- whose wells for drinking

water have been contaminated -- pay for tapping into the local aqueduct

authority's water system. Douglass said the cost for some residents living

in out-of-the-way locations would be "astronomical." He said the county

planned to seek a grant of several million dollars to help residents pay

for the hookups.

Douglass said the unmet needs coalition was focusing on the short term

needs of residents as well as taking a longer and broader outlook.

He noted, for example, that while Monroe County had developed "elaborate"

plans to evacuate the Keys in the event of a disaster, it had no plans in

place to deal with long-term recovery.

"The recovery side was strictly of the search-and-assessment type mode,

rather than anything on a more prolonged long-term basis," he said.

He said the coalition hoped that one of its last tasks would be to draft a

long-term recovery plan and present it to state and county officials for


"If there is a county in this country in some kind of a natural

disaster-prone area that does not have a formalized recovery plan in place,

it is really not being responsible for the health and safety of its

people," Douglass said.

He said that while the Keys had excellent emergency services, "the thing we

really were shortsighted about was we didn't really have a plan in place to

recover in the long term. That's got to change. It will change."

Posted Jan 12, 1999

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