After Hurricane Irma Tough Living on Big Pine Key Drags On

Lori Jones and Kim Kenney continue to live in this tent after Irma. Living situations vary widely on Big Pine Key almost three months after Hurricane Irma, which scattered residents after pummeling the island and leaving scores of heavily damaged homes and businesses behind.

Big Pine KeySome live in hotels paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Nearby Sugarloaf Lodge, with 31 rooms, at its peak had 28 of them filled with those displaced by the storm. The last count made available was 17 as this year’s hurricane season came to a close Nov. 30.

Among those temporarily living at Sugarloaf Lodge is Melissa White, whose family owns and operates the Florida Keys Café in Big Pine. They were staying in Homestead until the commute became too much to handle, though the family’s long-term outlook remains murky.

Another temporary Sugarloaf Lodge resident, Nicki Bremberg, says she’ll soon be living in a fifth-wheel trailer as her home is rebuilt.

“We have to demolish the house totally, down to the dirt, because our columns got cracked during the storm. It ripped our roof off,” she said. “We have a fifth-wheel that’s 38 feet long and we’ve got a temporary electric pole.”

Bremberg has gotten to know several fellow displaced residents of Big Pine Key, Sugarloaf and other areas where the recovery task is a major challenge. She says one regret among those at the hotel is the loss of a sense of community, though many have formed bonds as they commiserate and wonder what comes next.

“They’re away from their neighborhood, like us, living here in a motel room,” she said. “Of course, the people staying here have become almost a little bit like family.”

FEMA has announced an extension to Jan. 6 for assistance to those staying in hotel rooms as they look for more permanent housing solutions.

Others have adapted to rougher lifestyles after the storm. Lori Jones and Kim Kenney, who have been together for 19 years, have been living in a tent next to their heavily damaged trailer on Avenue C in Big Pine Key since Oct. 10.

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Jones reports that the two have been approved for $10,000 for the trailer, which she says is unrepairable, and $3,000 in rental assistance by FEMA. Most of the couple’s belongings are strewn between the unlivable trailer, another used for storage, and the tent, which features fans, a radio, scattered tools and has been the home of the retired couple for nearly two months.

At the end of Avenue C are 20 new FEMA travel trailers, though it’s unclear how many, if any, are occupied. One had a couple of chairs sitting outside as of Nov. 30; another had two bikes chained to it.

Both Jones and Kenney wonder who those trailers are for, if not people like them.

“We haven’t heard anything; nobody’s offered anything. Nobody’s talked to us about any FEMA trailers,” Jones said. “I would really, really like to know how they decide who gets them.”

“One would think that’s for the Avenues, but probably not,” Kenney added.

Nate Custer, Hurricane Irma public information officer for FEMA, says that the lot at the end of Avenue C may simply be a staging area for the trailers “while sites are found at which to place them.”

“So far FEMA has provided travel trailers as temporary housing for 121 households in Monroe County,” Custer wrote in an email. “It remains an ongoing process with the biggest difficulty being finding sites on which to place the trailers.”

Bremberg says that the agency found her property “unfeasible” for a FEMA trailer. Utility issues and zoning requirements are among the factors that FEMA must consider when placing trailers or RVs on private property.

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FEMA also has an estimated $202.6 billion in damage to contend with after a very active hurricane season, mostly due to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Florida’s estimated damage cost is just under $6 billion, though the accounting for Irma’s total damage cost continues.

Custer reports that the agency has provided rental assistance to more than 9,000 households in Monroe County and grants totaling $55 million to nearly 16,000 county households.

“About 99 percent of the eligibility home inspections have been completed,” Custer wrote. “As more inspections are done, more FEMA grant money for uninsured losses, such as for home repairs, may be approved for survivors.”

Kenney is among those who have questioned both the assessment and the amount of rental assistance given out by the agency.

“How would they know this is a $10,000 repair? They didn’t do enough assessment to really know,” he said. “They give you a finite amount for rental assistance while the home is being repaired. How do they figure all this stuff out when it’s not possible?”

Jones and Kenney say they’ve been encouraged to take out a Small Business Administration loan to cover the cost of repairing or replacing the trailer, but as they’re in their mid-to-late sixties, neither is enthusiastic about taking out either a 15- or 30-year loan as suggested by FEMA.

“We’re obviously older, and neither one of us wants a loan on anything at this point,” Jones said.

“We live on Social Security,” Kenney added.

Jones says the couple lives on a day-to-day basis because the ice they buy every day melts too fast, and therefore they can’t keep food. She indicates that much of each day is spent gathering ice and other supplies, while Kenney busies himself by cleaning his tools and doing upkeep around the site while the couple discusses what to do next.

“One of our issues is ice. We can’t keep it long enough,” Jones said. “That means we cannot buy groceries.”

The couple maintains a positive spirit, however, and there have been a few amusing moments during their nearly two months of tent life.

One of those moments involved being trapped in their tent with local wildlife.

“We had an iguana in our tent,” Kenney said. “We had left the door open accidentally, and all of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I see a tail and all this rustling.”

“He jumps, and I scream,” Jones added.

“I’m trying to whack him with an aluminum pole. We both thought it was a rat at first,” Kenney said, failing to indicate whether the invasive lizard was ultimately removed dead or alive.

The couple also credits Tavernier resident Lisa Miletti, who has been holding weekend cookouts in Big Pine for months now, for alleviating some of the couple’s day-to-day needs. She was also instrumental in securing a bed for Kenney, he says, and has coordinated with businesses and charities in the Keys and beyond to keep aid moving to the island.

“She’s a terrific organizer; I don’t know where she gets the energy,” Kenney said.

Blue Heaven restaurant has also coordinated volunteers to bring meals to the Avenues, which the couple says has been a godsend.

“When they first stopped here, I can’t tell you how relieved I was (after) being in a tent,” Kenney said.

Though that charity has been welcome, the couple is still at a loss concerning their destroyed trailer, and wonder why more cleanup hasn’t been done in their neighborhood.

They’ve bandied about a few ideas on how to dispose of it, but haven’t come up with a practical or legally sound answer.

“Do we pull the trailer out to the road and just leave it? If so, do we grind the ID off first? What if we cut it up into pieces and put it out on the road?” Kenney asked.

“I don’t want to end up with fines, or arrested, but somebody needs to put (the information) out there,” Jones added. “What is the proper way to dispose of these?”

They also complain of the general state of the neighborhood, which is still plagued by massive amounts of debris, including trailers and boats.

Vice President Mark Stafford of DRC Emergency Services, contracted by Monroe County to handle cleanup in Big Pine and other parts of the Lower Keys, says that the company hopes to have its third sweep of Big Pine neighborhoods done by the end of the year.

“We plan to complete the second pass of debris removal in Monroe County, including Big Pine Key, in the next 14 days,” Stafford wrote in an email. “If county officials are agreeable, we will complete a third and final pass after the Christmas holiday.”

As folks in the Lower Keys continue to struggle with a touch-and-go present and an unclear housing future, along with debris cleanup and other issues, Bremberg says that what she misses most is the sense of companionship shared with longtime neighbors.

“When you’re living in a trailer instead of your house, or a fifth-wheel, it’s not like having a house where you can have people come over,” she said. “Come on in, let’s sit down, let’s have some coffee.”

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