The Miami Herald
BYLINE: NATALIE P. McNEAL
A handful of Broward County hurricane evacuees have found temporary shelter in the homes of strangers. It seems an odd idea in a modern urban county, but it is a small, warm patch in the county's quilt of solutions for those left homeless by Wilma.
''The problem is so massive,'' said Betty Hern Morrow, professor emeritus at Florida International University, who studies the sociology of disaster. ``In recent history, we've never had so many people dislocated for long periods of time.''
Wilma damaged or destroyed about 4,900 residential units in Broward, and caused more than $1 billion worth of damage. Broward County and federal officials struggled to find places for hundreds of evacuees in shelters.
Felicia Holley, 46, stepped up directly. The West Park woman has three children of her own at home, but her 17-year-old son spends free time on his skateboard, and the baby, 12-year-old Charlotte, has girlfriends she chats and hangs with. With a grown daughter who is always away from home, Holley said she felt like an empty-nester.
Holley went to the Red Cross shelter at McNicol Middle school, just up the street from her home, and met with Maribel Bermudez, 42. The single mother and her three children had lived with a friend in a mobile home in Margate, but after the storm, she had to move to the shelter.
The women hit it off right away, and the kids weren't far behind.
Now, Bermudez's children, ages 3, 7 and 16 are calling Holley ''mom.'' Even Bermudez calls her mom, despite their similar ages.
''I look up to her because I wasn't raised by my mom,'' said Bermudez, who works part-time cleaning office buildings. ``She's like my mom. She's accepted my kids and loves them.''
Such arrangements are not unheard of.
Russell Dynes, co-founder of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, said that aid agencies often don't organize as quickly as neighborly networks after disasters.
''In Katrina, you almost got the feeling that people felt FEMA was a national 9-1-1, that they'd be at your doorstep,'' Dynes said. ``People forgot that it was their neighbor helping them out first.''
And MoveOn.org , a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C. activist organization, started Hurricanehousing.org, after Katrina hit the Gulf coast in August. The organization found housing for about 20,000 people, with 107,000 people offering their homes for the victims.
Eight days afterward, heavy rains destroyed the roof and brought the ceiling tumbling down.
She checked into an American Red Cross shelter, where she befriended a volunteer and told her story to the media. An Atlanta businessman heard it, and volunteered his vacation home on a canal off Las Olas Boulevard.
So Bielik and her family moved from their drug-ridden former neighborhood, to a middle school gym, to a multimillion home in an exclusive enclave.
''None of the kids at school believe me when I tell them I live in a $3 million home,'' said Jesse Taylor, Bielik's 14-year-old son.
Bielik and her husband are making do on his $1,000 a month earnings from Wendy's.
The businessman -- who did not want his name used -- didn't give Bielik a deadline to move out, but said he wanted to be sure they were working toward getting on their feet.
Since moving in, the family has been able to buy a car, and they're planning for the future.
''I can't believe how well things turned out,'' Bielik said.
`I HAD ROOM'
Brandy Cohen met Wurzel through a feeding program funded by the United Jewish Community of Broward County. She had planned to take her in to weather the storm, but then was forced to evacuate to Orlando. She called her mother-in-law, Sheila Cohen.
Sheila Cohen, who will only say she's in her 70s, took in Wurzel for a week during and after the storm. ''My condo's small but I had room,'' she said.
''I used to do volunteer work when I lived in Atlanta,'' Sheila Cohen said. ``If I could do more, I would.''