Life in a Florida FEMA Trailer Park
FEMA has a history in Florida. Some experiences were actually good, but not always...
By Mark Proulx - Special to GCN Filed 4/5/06
Indiantown, Florida is a fairly quiet and poor little community about 30 miles northwest of West Palm Beach, one of the richest areas in South Florida. Indiantown is most known for being nestled amongst the citrus crops that grow all the way around the town. Poor migrant Mexican workers walk up and down the sides of Highway 710 getting to the sparse shopping available within a two- to three-mile stretch and one can easily miss the town unless you happen to need gas at the local Shell station/Subway store.
I stopped into the Shell station to ask for directions to the “FEMA trailer park.” The lady behind the counter frowned a bit and said, “You know, I really don’t know.” She then proceeded to ask one of the hired help mopping the floors and he didn’t know. Finally, a man pointed to the north and said, “Go up to the stoplight, turn left past the Post Office, bear right over the tracks and keep on going till you see it on your right hand side. But I wouldn’t go over there if I was you. That’s a bad part of town.”
The lady behind the counter nodded in agreement. I politely thanked them and followed the directions I’d been given. Having grown up in Southern Mississippi and having lots of friends who lived in the “bad part of town,” I dismissed it as another way of saying the “where the blacks live.” I expected there to be a blightedness about the area so I went in thinking that I’d see more of what I have come to expect of the disenfranchised, dismissed and downtrodden. What really surprised me about finding the FEMA trailer park – in the “bad part of town” – is that it was only about a mile and a half away from the store.
At first glance, the area known as Heritage Park, the subsection of the “bad part of town” known as Booker Park, was nothing more than rows and rows of neatly arranged white trailers…or what I thought was nice and neat white trailers. My first impression of the trailer park is that this is a lot like other trailer parks – until I looked carefully. The outsides of a lot of trailers wasn’t so white. There was siding missing on a lot of them. There were “blue roofs” on the trailers, too. Many of the trailers have the underpinning missing and – something a lot more subtle – very few cars in the driveways.
I pulled into a cleared off area at the end of the rows near the fencing. I could clearly see men leaning on the fence with brown paper wrapped bottles, shirts off and laughing loudly. I snapped off a couple of pictures and that’s when it started.
“Hey! Stop taking pictures! Don’t be taking no G-D pictures!”
“It’s okay,” I yelled back. “This is for the news! You wanna talk?”
“Hell no! I don’t wanna say nuthin to yo punk ass!”
I shrugged it off like I normally do and walked off down the rows of trailers, hoping to catch someone who would talk to me. A little piece of me started worrying that this might have been a bad idea.
Some young black girls were talking in front of one of the trailers with kids around their feet, so I walked up and introduced myself as being with an online news service whose readers may be in the beginning stages of what they were going through now. They were easy to talk to so I hit them with the hard questions first.
“Whole lotta business here needs taken care of,” Natoya Williams told me. “People here are hurting.” Ms. Williams told me about how she had been told by FEMA reps that they were going to be kicked out of their trailer within the next month. Apparently, the contract for the land was up in April and, according to her, the FEMA people were going to turn it over to the landowner who was kicking them out.
Williams stated that she had seen FEMA reps around constantly but no one really knew what was going to happen across the board to the people living in the trailers. All she knew was that she was about to get turned out. “They put us here in the middle of nowhere, we ain’t got no jobs, I lost my home, I got no car to get around to look for a job and they telling us they ain’t got no money to help us out. Now maybe there’s people worse off than us, I’ll give you that…but they saying they can’t do nothing for us and we gonna have to leave.”
So what was her answer to the question as to what she would do if FEMA evicted her? “I gotta get the hell out. Ain’t nothing more I can say. I don’t have any way of getting around, I got no relatives and I got place to stay. I just pray to God and just know that he will provide somehow.”
Another friend of Ms. Williams, named Keisha, told me that FEMA was very good about bringing ice around after Wilma (in 2005). “They were good about the ice after the power went out. Lord knows how many people we woulda lost if someone didn’t bring ice around. We couldn’t go get it!”
I spotted a lady at the end of one of the rows pulling into the driveway with a small tow trailer, unloading things to bring inside. We chatted a little bit and I found out she had been renting a mobile home in Okeechobee, about 30 miles away, when the storms hit in 2004. FEMA put her and her three kids in a camper trailer temporarily, but she had to evacuate when Wilma came roaring through and the camper trailer was completely destroyed.
Since Okeechobee was not declared a disaster area, FEMA actually put this family in several different places until a trailer in Heritage Park opened up, but the lady I spoke with, Renee, gave me a very different story about what she was told was going to happen.
According to her, the FEMA reps stated that by April the landowner would be taking over management of the property and all those people who could not pay the minimum of electricity and water (about $73 every two months) would be evicted. Renee was expecting to pay rent very soon after the landowner took control of the developed property. At the time I spoke to her, she had only moved in a couple of days before and was not having to pay rent.
Renee also told me that she commutes the 30 miles every day to and from Okeechobee to take her kids to school there and to work. She was basically glad to get the trailer (three bedroom, one-bath trailers all) because her kids needed the room to spread out and she had been going “cabin-crazy” in the small camper…so the larger trailer was a welcome relief.
I asked her about possibly moving back to Okeechobee. She rolled her eyes and hissed, “Oh, puh-leez! The rents in town are too high now. As soon as the ‘trailer trash’ was blown away, rents went through the roof. Nobody can afford to live in town anymore.”
She lost most everything during the 2004 storms and was completely wiped out after Wilma destroyed everything she had left last year. Renee plans to start over and continue commuting to and from Okeechobee, simply because she doesn’t want to upset her kids’ routine…plus she knows they love the area and all their friends are there. It’s a hard existence, but Renee is determined to make it work.
“The kids are involved in Okeechobee,” she said, “I would hate to take them out. By hurricane season I hope to be out. We haven’t been in a real home since 2004.”
As I walked along between the trailers, I noticed a good deal of them had siding and more ripped off the outsides. I stopped and talked to two ladies, Noreen and Tawanna, sitting on top of an electrical station who were glad to fill me in on the history of what had transpired so far.
“That damage happened during Wilma last year,” said Noreen folding her arms and thinking aloud. “Nobody fixes nothing around here. Some got an attitude that if we have to fix it and then get kicked out, we ain’t fixing it. Others got no money to fix it even if they wanted to. If you complain loud enough, FEMA will pull the trailers out with mold and get them moved, but you gotta complain a lot. One lady got kicked out of the house by the FEMA contractor as they was pulling the new trailer in. Gave her about a half hour to get her stuff out before they hauled it away. No notice, no nothing. And they wouldn’t let her back in either.”
When asked how she was getting along, Noreen said, “I moved in last year after Wilma. I’m still wearing the clothes Goodwill gave me then cause I lost everything else. Most people put here got no jobs. There’s no jobs in town here and they couldn’t get to the jobs anyway without a vehicle to get them there. A lot of people here just got stuck.”
Noreen’s friend, Tawanna, agreed. “If I had the money, I’d be outta here. I’d move either to Texas or Michigan where I got family. Problem is, I got no way to get the money I need to move.”
Noreens’ 16-year-old daughter, Emily, walked up and told me that when FEMA moved them to Heritage Park, that’s when all the problems started for her. The school she needed to get into, Okeechobee High, told her that she had started too late in the year and that she would have to wait. According to Emily, a lady at the school told her, “You just came at the wrong time.”
After much frustration, Emily replied, “Well let me tell the hurricanes to wait then!”
Between Tawanna and Noreen, the frustration over living in a trapped situation was only the beginning. “Some people with no kids got fat checks, while people with little kids got nothing. I don’t understand what’s going on,” Noreen said, disheartened. “This past Christmas a charity group gave every kid in the trailer park a refurbished bicycle. Within two days, every bike was stolen. The kids a few doors down have a makeshift ‘garage’ for putting bikes back together, but all they got is pieces now.”
“I guess FEMA is serious about pulling out,” Tawanna said. “A few weeks ago, security for the area was pulled.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Crime went up,” Noreen said matter-of-factly. “The kids are bored, that’s why they get into trouble. They see people who got just a little something and they feel bad cause they know they can’t get it unless they steal it. I know all the little kids that break into all the trailers cause they all look up to me cause I feed them. They come around for meals, I hang with them and they think I’m cool…that’s why they don’t break into my place for stuff. I feed ‘em cause they got nothing left.
“In fact, I don’t know where I’m gonna get food to feed myself. Hold on right there, I’ll be back. I’m going over to a neighbor’s house to steal some food.”
And she did.
Apparently the locks on these trailers have been figured out by the entire community and don’t “lock” much in. Noreen walked up to the door, proceeded to “jiggle” the handle while performing some unseen sleight-of-hand, and the door swung open quickly. Within 15 seconds, she was walking out of the door, down the steps and past where I was standing with a small bundle of goods in her arms. As she passed by, she winked and kept going to her trailer, obviously letting us know to keep this to ourselves.
Strangely, when she returned back to where our little group was talking, she was quite relaxed, as if just having the food helped her lose all the stress she was feeling just a couple of minutes before.
This is a tough existence this “just getting by.” All sense of pride is gone, survival mode is the only one these people live with every day. Anything they have to do to survive is how they live and the desperation shows in every face…even the ones who truly believe that they will be gone by hurricane season.
The brave ones say they will be moving one, but one knows better. All it takes is looking around: moldy trailers, lack of transportation, no buses running in that area, no money coming in to afford even basic food and water, pregnant teenage girls everywhere, rampant and escalating crime. This is the worst kind of existence, this “just getting by.” Surviving just for sake of surviving is no way for people to live.
These people who have been “rescued” by FEMA have, at the same time, been forgotten. There is no plan to get these people on their feet again…it is completely left to the people placed in these trailers to somehow figure out how to get employment in an area with no jobs, find transportation in an area with no mass transportation and find hope in moldy, damaged trailers from which they will be evicted if they cannot pay even basic water and electricity.
Hancock County – as well as the rest of the Gulf Coast – must be aware that FEMA trailers are a bandaid, a temporary and shortsighted solution to a much larger problem that could reduce sections of the Coast to the mind-set of one, large trailer park. We must take precautions to not allow these trailers to be the ultimate crutch and eyesore.
We must see to it that the Mississippi Gulf Coast never has to fall back on this type of assistance ever again.
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