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The Miami Herald
November 3, 2005 Thursday F1 EDITION

Thousands homeless; agencies strapped;
Thousands of people were driven from their homes by Hurricane Wilma -- and Tuesday's rainstorms -- triggering a housing and shelter crisis in Miami-Dade and Broward counties Wednesday.;

HURRICANE WILMA DAMAGE

BYLINE: BY NATALIE P. McNEAL, WANDA J. DeMARZO, AMY SHERMAN AND DANIEL CHANG;
SECTION: A; Pg. 1

The Red Cross says it can no longer afford to house evacuees in hotels. The Salvation Army has run out of beds. And government housing authorities have few or no vacancies.

On a day when the number of South Florida housing units deemed uninhabitable in the wake of Wilma grew to more than 13,000, emergency housing options were dwindling for the growing number of evacuees.

A glimmer of hope emerged late Wednesday, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that 200 trailers and mobile homes were headed to Broward, which bore the brunt of the hurricane.

That will put a small dent in the army of newly uprooted South Floridians.

Wilma was ''the most damaging storm to hit our area since 1950,'' causing more than $350 million dollars in damage to Broward's infrastructure, said Mayor Kristin Jacobs. About 11,000 of the houses, apartments, condominiums and mobile homes tagged unsafe since the storm are in Broward.

Wilma's destruction and the rising need for relief has created a housing and shelter crisis, helping to push the 124-year-old American Red Cross to a financial edge.

Spokesman Ken Austin said Wednesday that the Red Cross, which borrowed $304 million last week after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita depleted its Disaster Relief Fund, couldn't care for South Florida evacuees over the long term. ''We're helping folks right now with immediate needs, but with this magnitude of a disaster, the next step would be FEMA.''

But there was confusion about which agency was responsible for sheltering evacuees.

A group of seven families from the Gulf Coast -- evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in August -- said the Red Cross gave them two hours notice Wednesday to leave their rooms at the Wellesley Inn hotel in Plantation.

The Katrina evacuees said the Red Cross told them to contact FEMA to extend their stays at the hotel. But when New Orleans evacuee Freddie Anderson reached FEMA, he said it referred him back to the Red Cross.

''Why you giving me the runaround?'' he asked.

Anderson, who said he only has $300 to his name, paid more than $100 to secure his six-member family one more night at the hotel while they figure out new living arrangements.

Red Cross spokeswoman Carrie Martin said the families could stay at Broward Red Cross shelters.

TIME LIMITS
But maybe not for long. The Red Cross' four Broward shelters are in public schools. They may be sent packing Monday -- the date school officials intend to resume classes.

Austin said the agency planned to consolidate the shelters into a single, larger facility that can accommodate its 850 evacuees in Broward. But agency officials were still looking for such a place Wednesday.

In Miami-Dade, the Red Cross is housing more than 150 evacuees on the county fairgrounds next to Florida International University in West Miami-Dade. But that shelter, which is leaking, must close Friday to make room for a scheduled event. County officials scrambled to find three smaller shelters but had not identified any as of late Wednesday.

Although not at capacity, the Red Cross shelters were growing more crowded. At Fox Trail elementary in Davie, a handful of seniors and women had been sleeping in a music room and sharing a bathroom. On Wednesday, there were about two dozen cots in the room.

''Before, it was more like a family; now it's more like an institution,'' said Michele Cataldo, 48, whose Fort Lauderdale apartment had water damage and lost a window.

Many staying in the shelters felt themselves slipping into homelessness.

At Arthur Ashe Middle School in Fort Lauderdale, families sleep on cots or mattresses lining the gymnasium. Evacuees store extra shoes, washcloths, boxer shorts and newspapers on the bleachers and keep their possessions in garbage bags or suitcases by their beds.

Joseph and Juanita Bielik arrived at Arthur Ashe with their three children and Juanita's mother at 5 a.m. Wednesday. The Fort Lauderdale apartment they had moved into two weeks ago sprung a few leaks after Wilma. Tuesday's rain caused the ceiling to cave into two rooms.

''It almost looked like snow,'' Juanita Bielik said. ''It snowed in my apartment. It's a foot deep.''

The family salvaged some clothes and drove for hours looking for a hotel. They moved into the shelter when they couldn't find a vacancy.

''I've never been through anything like this,'' Bielik said. ''We don't really know what we are going to do. We live paycheck to paycheck. I make $7 an hour. My husband makes $7.25 an hour. It's hard.''

Evacuees may apply for help from FEMA, which expects to announce the opening of several Disaster Recovery Centers offering emergency assistance today, said spokesman Ricardo Zuniga.

FEMA trailers and mobile homes already are headed to Broward. Jacobs said the county ordered 400 trailers and mobile homes Monday.

The Army Corps of Engineers is scouring Broward for possible property where mobile homes and trailers can be set up.

FEMA officials said evacuees must call it at 800-621-3362 to apply for housing aid. To date, 156,989 Wilma victims statewide have applied for housing assistance, said spokesman Hugo Buehring.

As of Oct. 24, more than 3,000 applicants had been approved for housing assistance, and $6.3 million has been earmarked to pay for it, he said.

In Miami-Dade, as more cities began reporting the numbers of homes deemed unsafe by municipal and county building departments, the number swelled from 1,532 to 2,059 units. That is expected to grow.

SALVATION ARMY
The Salvation Army, too, is tapped for shelters.

''We don't have any housing that isn't being used already,'' said Capt. Steve Morris, area commander of the Salvation Army in Broward.

He said the Broward Salvation Army can house as many as 336 people, but those beds were filled before the storm. Still, Morris said, the Salvation Army took in 70 more people after Wilma.

Meanwhile, at one of the condemned buildings on 12th Avenue in Liberty City, Deborah Copeland spent much of the day sorting through the ruin. She gathered up her 3-year-old, Shanti, and what stuff she could and headed to a Days Inn in Hialeah, one of the places they were told they could find shelter.

''It's a blessing to have this room for three days, but what do I do after that?,'' says Copeland, who works for the Miami-Dade School Board. ''It's going to be rough trying to get back and forth to my job over here. And I don't have much money for gas. I feel like we are lost in a ball of confusion.''

Herald staff writers Evan S. Benn, Audra D.S. Burch, Ashley Fantz, Jennifer Lebovich, Noaki Schwartz and Darran Simon contributed to this report.

 

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