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Lee County residents transition to FEMA's housing recovery period

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Katie Fogarty
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People who sheltered in Hertz Arena in Estero during and after Hurricane Ian wait for transportation to Lee County’s new shelter in the Del Tura Plaza in North Fort Myers. On October 19 Lee Tran buses took the people to the new location as they wait for longer-term housing options.

Thousands of people throughout Southwest Florida lost their homes and jobs when Hurricane Ian swept through. Federal and local efforts are helping Floridians to find sheltering options and to rebuild what the hurricane damaged or destroyed.

On October 19, three weeks after the storm hit, Lee County transitioned evacuees from the two remaining hurricane shelters to a shelter in the Del Tura Plaza in North Fort Myers, not far from the Charlotte County line. This is in partnership with the Florida Department of Emergency Management to create a longer-term hurricane shelter option.

Not everyone qualifies for assistance. Eligible criteria includes having a primary residence in the qualifying area, showing proof of home damages and having a current sheltering location. Many people, such as the homeless population, don’t meet this criteria. They have to rely on help from organizations other than FEMA.

Ken Higginbotham, an external affairs officer of FEMA public relations, said over 2,700 people are currently using the FEMA covered hotels and motels for temporary housing. He said everyone who has been impacted by Hurricane Ian should register in the designated counties to learn if they qualify for assistance.

“There are many moving parts, but there are a lot of areas and agencies and organizations that are moving this effort forward,” Higginbotham said.

He said there isn’t currently a set time to close shelter options for residents who are still living there. The county, the government and local organizations are working with residents on an individual basis to learn what type of assistance they qualify for — and if they’re eligible for FEMA.

People who register for FEMA assistance receive an individual registration number and are assigned a counselor to help them to identify what assistance they qualify for.

“There is a lot of support, and it’s important to know that people are here to help people,” Higginbotham said.

Ryan Lock, the Southeast, Caribbean, and Carolina’s division disaster state relations manager of the Red Cross, said one of his priorities is to help move people out of shelters. “A shelter is not an ideal place for someone to get on their path to recovery,” he said.

Some shelters have teams from the Red Cross to talk with people to identify the barriers that keep them from leaving the shelters. Lock said the barriers are as varied as the individuals themselves, and teams are connecting people with specific resources.

“We want to make sure that the residents that are in the shelter are on a path and that they have a next step,” Lock said.

Lock said teams have been efficient in giving people the resources they need. On September 28th, when Hurricane Ian made landfall, there were about 33,000 people in Florida shelters. Now there are about 1,400 people still in shelters.

“You know that the shelter really is just a stopgap, making sure that people have a safe place to stay when they can't stay out there,” Lock said. “And I think we're getting to the point where we're starting to see more and more residents be able to return home or return to a new temporary shelter.”

Christie Snow had been staying at Hertz Arena and was transferred to the shelter in the Del Tura Plaza. Originally from Charleston, West Virginia, this was her first hurricane.

Snow said that Hurricane Ian took away everything from her home in Fort Myers. Despite that, she’s felt blessed by how her community surrounded her and helped her in this time.

“I did lose everything, but the blessing of it was the people that pulled together,” Snow said. “They did everything that I would have expected for someone to do in a situation like this.”

She said she doesn’t know what she’s going to do for housing once the shelter is unavailable. But she found a job, and now she’s tasked with saving enough money to find a place to live.

Miles Holezeach was born in Fort Myers and lived in Bonita Springs for a few years. A true Southwest Floridian, he also rode out the storm in Hertz Arena and transferred to the new Lee shelter.

He said having grown up in the area, hurricanes are simply a part of life. “You should expect at least one decent storm every now and again,” Holezeach said.

Before going to Hertz, he lived in a homeless shelter in the county. Holezeach brought most of his things with him and didn’t lose much.

Like Snow, he is tasked with finding a new job and making a better income before leaving the shelter. He isn’t sure what his next steps are. With minimal income as a cook at Wendy’s, he said the options for where to go next are slim.

To be eligible for FEMA Transitional Recovery Assistance, Holezeach needs to have a home in an area that qualifies. The homeless shelter is not a primary residence, and he is not able to receive the same assistance from FEMA as some who lost their homes.

Despite that, he has a positive outlook on his situation. “Things will move forward and we know the resilience of these citizens in the state of Florida,” Holezeach said. “These are some tough times, but there are many, many people out there that are with them side by side.”

Luis Castane also is homeless, and had been staying at Hertz Arena since the hurricane hit. In the uncertainty of his situation, he said people provided for his needs as soon as he arrived at the shelter.

“They asked me, ‘What do you need?’ I asked them what do you have? And so we literally have everything,” Castane said.

His main concern is with how to find housing. He was struggling with this before the hurricane and now, the struggle is harder than ever.

“FEMA may be helping [others] 'cause they already have a home, they could get loans and stuff like that,” Castane said. “I was already homeless, so that's the type of long term assistance that I need and I'm sure many other people do too.”

As Castane seeks long-term help from local organizations, he said he’s just taking it one day at a time.

Higginbotham said that while people are still needing support, efforts from FEMA and other organizations to help won’t be going away anytime soon.

“We're here for the long term,” Higginbotham said. “We're not going anywhere because people need the help.”

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students.