NAPLES, Fla. — More than a month after Hurricane Irma hit Florida, Samantha Tindell’s family is still living in a trailer where parts of the ceiling collapsed and mold has spread into one of the rooms.
Irma's winds damaged the Immokalee trailer’s roof and stormwater leaked inside. Tindell, her partner and their two children, ages 9 and 11, must sleep in rooms where the ceiling hasn’t yet caved in, although it's starting to crack.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the family's request for housing assistance, in part arguing the home is safe despite the storm damage.
However, Tindell said she doesn’t feel safe. She doesn’t have the money for repairs or to rent another place. She said she doesn’t know her family’s next step.
“I sometimes want to cry,” she said. “I’m so lost.”
Tindell's family is among dozens reeling from Irma in hard-hit areas outside Naples. As Naples leaders promote the area as safe and back to normal for tourists to returnfor season, some Collier County communities continue to struggle with homes destroyed or badly damaged.
"The Paradise Coast is clear!" announces the area's tourism website.
But that's not true for several communities in Collier.
In Immokalee, where almost half of the population lives in poverty, Santiago Rosalez said he doesn’t know yet whether he will get any help to repair his trailer. Irma reduced a third of it to rubble.
Neither do Carol and Rob Sykora, who have been waiting on FEMA to show up for three weeks and are living in a pop-up camper set up in their Plantation Island driveway nearly 40 miles southeast of Naples.
Many of the local residents dealing with damage don’t understand the system in place to apply for assistance, don’t know when they will get help or whether help will come at all.
In Immokalee, Irma hit with lower wind speeds than Naples. But the town, where mobile homes make up roughly a quarter of the housing, was one of the most vulnerable.
“There’s no doubt that Immokalee needs attention and more dollars for affordable housing for those folks in the lower income brackets,” said Frank Nappo, chairman of the Immokalee Community Redevelopment Agency advisory board.
Even now, in the midst of one of the worst housing crunches in the county’s history, commissioners are considering new rules that would barely touch the surface for the county’s poorest residents in the most need of housing, while creating more new homes for better-off families earning up to $100,000 a year.
In Immokalee, Tindell said her family bought their used trailer years ago for $6,000. They used three years of savings and money from her partner’s mother.
But now she fears they are back to square one.
“I can’t just live like this,” she said.
FEMA spokesman Michael Wade said the agency doesn’t pay for long-term repairs, only for temporary repairs to make a home safe to occupy while long-term repairs are made.
Wade said those who need their homes inspected before getting assistance might be in for a weeks-long wait. It can take up to 30 days for a FEMA contractor to inspect a damaged home.
“We are working as quickly and as diligently as we can,” Wade said.
In Plantation Island, a small fishing community neighboring Everglades National Park, soaked mattresses, rusted refrigerators and all of the storm’s collected broken things still line every front lawn. Most of the trailers were either destroyed or flooded.
The Sykoras have given up on waiting for FEMA. They are gutting all the floors, carpets and walls of their flooded home. They registered with FEMA over the phone and said they were told they would hear back in 10 business days. That was three weeks ago, Rob Sykora said.
“It’s one roadblock after another,” he said.
The two are living in the camper set up in their driveway, while they finish gutting the house, salvaging what they can. Carol’s retired boss bought them the camper after hearing about what happened to their home.
Who knows how long they’ll be living in the driveway, Carol Sykora said.
“It could be a year,” she said.
FEMA has been slow to bring temporary housing to Collier County. The first FEMA trailers were brought to the Florida Keys on Sept. 27. Almost three weeks later, trailers began arriving in Collier.