FEMA's Slow Rollout of Trailers Frustrates Bay County, Fla., Officials, Residents After Hurricane Michael

For more than a month, FEMA has worked with county and city officials to bring various trailers and modular homes to the area for residents whose homes were destroyed by the hurricane.

by Patrick Mccreless, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. / December 18, 2018

(TNS) - Kristi Proctor has had a small, federally-provided travel trailer parked beside the shattered remains of her home for nearly two weeks.

Now, if only she were given the keys to unlock it.

Proctor, whose Panama City home was one of many destroyed by Hurricane Michael, registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for direct housing assistance soon after the storm, only to wait about two months for a trailer to arrive. Crews connected water and sewer to the trailer and were supposed to then return to connect the power and hand Proctor the keys.

As of Friday evening, Proctor was still waiting, instead staying in a neighbor's spare bedroom with her son.

"I don't understand the holdup," Proctor said. "If they just get the power hooked up, we could be in it."

For more than a month, FEMA has worked with county and city officials to bring various trailers and modular homes to the area for residents whose homes were destroyed by the hurricane. However, according to FEMA, as of last week only around 44 trailers had been placed in the county. Meanwhile, around 1,400 people are registered in the agency's direct housing program.

FEMA officials say they've heard the concerns in the community and that the delays stem from the massive amounts of debris that must be removed from sites where trailers can be placed. However, area officials are unsatisfied with FEMA's progress, saying their attempts to partner with the agency to remove debris and inspect sites, thereby speeding up the process, so far haven't been entirely successful.

"We are not satisfied with the velocity of trailers coming into the county," said Joel Schubert, assistant county manager for Bay County. "We've been sending FEMA potential sites for the trailers since landfall."

Phillip Griffitts, chairman of the Bay County Commission, said he also wasn't pleased with FEMA's progress with the trailers.

"We've been trying to do everything we can to speed the progress up, but it doesn't feel like they want the help," Griffitts said.

County officials have even recently reached out to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's office, pleading with him to do what he can to speed up the program.

As such, Rubio sent a letter to FEMA administrators on Tuesday, urging them to accelerate the program in the Panhandle, but particularly in Bay County, one of the hardest-hit areas.

"While I recognize the difficult task FEMA faces with the level of destruction caused by Hurricane Michael, a delay of this length constitutes a failure to address the housing needs of affected survivors," Rubio wrote. "This type of devastation requires the federal government to act in a thorough and efficient manner to ensure that available resources are both approved and delivered."

Rubio also wrote that FEMA should improve communications with county officials as to the causes of the delays.

"This lack of communication is unacceptable and must be rectified," Rubio wrote.

Schubert said the county had already identified 103 potential sites for FEMA trailers.

"We cleared debris of maybe a fifth of those in just 48 hours," Schubert said. "At the end of all that cleanup, we turned over those 103 sites and after inspection, 88 viable sites came out."

Griffitts said the county is willing to clear more sites, but it appears FEMA doesn't want the help, which is slowing the whole process.

"They've decided to employ contractors to do the inspections and clearing of debris," Griffitts said. "They'd rather do the process instead of us."

In response to the Rubio letter and county officials' complaints about FEMA hiring outside contractors for the trailer program, Crystal Paulk-Buchanan, spokeswoman for FEMA, wrote in an email to The News Herald that the agency continues to work with state and local officials to help survivors find federal housing solutions.

"Debris has been and continues to be the most significant challenge placing units and we are partnering with the county to find solutions," Paulk-Buchanan wrote. "We all have the same goal — to help the survivors of Hurricane Michael to move forward with their lives following this devastating storm."

John Donahue, the FEMA direct housing program lead for Bay and Gulf Counties, said part of the problem is that the agency tries to put trailers on homeowners' private property first. However, many of the people impacted in the county were renters, meaning FEMA is looking for places like trailer parks, which have concrete pads for trailers and have available water and sewer lines.

"There's just too much debris and a lot of the need is for renters and without available pads, we can't place the trailers anywhere," Donahue said.

Donahue noted that trailers are only one type of housing program that FEMA is offering in the county. The agency also provides rental assistance for hotels and motels, along with aid for home repairs, he said.

According to FEMA, more than 600 county families are currently housed in hotels and motels under the agency's transitional assistance program. To date, FEMA has awarded nearly $80 million for rent, repair, replacement and personal property assistance in the county.

Also, more than 5,000 roofs were repaired under the Blue Roof Program, allowing families to stay in their homes to make more long-term repairs, FEMA states.

"The trailers are the last options we go to after the other programs," Donahue said. "When we start thinking about bringing trailers in, we look at big pieces of property ... but it's been challenging here, since there's so much debris and we can't put them in flood plains."

Nikki Gaskins, another FEMA spokeswoman, said it was important for residents to also understand that the agency is there to support them, but not make them whole like they were before the hurricane.

"We're here to give a hand up to those who qualify ... to get a roof over their heads while they work on more long-term solutions," Gaskins said. "We're just a piece of the puzzle."

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©2018 The News Herald (Panama City, Fla.)

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