On Sunday, March 10, Katrina Spelker of Marathon will cut her boat delivery short in order to meet FEMA officials at her agency-provided trailer to turn over the Keys.

“I’ve been living in the trailer since Jan. 6, 2018 up until last week, when I left the Keys to go purchase a sailboat,” she said. “It’s a great deal, and I need a place to live until my home is rebuilt.”

The FEMA trailers were authorized to be occupied for 18 months following the natural disaster. At the start of the program, there were 242 households awarded assistance through the FEMA Direct Housing Assistance program. Currently, there are 27 households in Monroe County living in FEMA trailers. According to Matt Massoud, a senior planner for Monroe County, 19 of those households owned their own home, and 8 rented prior to Hurricane Irma. 

Some, like Spelker, have found their own solutions. She said she could not afford FEMA’s offer of a $1,700 a month “failure to vacate” fine.

“The very few, if any, who do not have housing come March 10th, be it permanent or temporary, will still be eligible for assistance through the Long Term Recovery Group if they choose to accept it,” Massoud said. The trailer evictees could be eligible for security deposits, monthly rent, construction grants, assistance with permitting and code compliance, and physical and mental health referrals.

Although 27 households in FEMA trailers is a low number, it does not begin to touch how many are still living in privately owned temporary trailers next to the destroyed or severely damaged property they own, or in some cases, renting a temporary trailer due to the lack of affordable housing, intensified by the some 4,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged by Hurricane Irma in the Keys. 

Marathon city staff is researching that part of the problem right now.

“We’ve actually gone out and surveyed most streets in Marathon and split the trailers we found into categories — a stored camper, people living in temporary trailers, people that are renting trailers, etc.,” said Doug Lewis, Marathon’s growth management director. “There’s a wide range of what’s out there.”

Marathon has issued 154 permits for temporary trailer permits. Both Marathon and Monroe County have issued this type of emergency permit … but there are limits. Homeowners must demonstrate progress in rebuilding their home in order to be granted a permit extension on a case-by-case basis. 

Lewis said once the survey of temporary trailers is complete, he will bring back the data to the Marathon City Council for a policy decision. Not every trailer has a permit, and it will be up to the council to decide how to manage property owners who cannot demonstrate rebuilding progress, or renters of temporary trailers who have no property to improve.

The restrictive policies governing FEMA travel trailers and privately owned RVs concern what happens the next time a hurricane hits the Keys. For example, two of the displaced households in Marathon were still living in FEMA-issued travel trailers following Hurricane Wilma in 2005; both were wrecked beyond repair. 

In September 2018, when then Gov. Rick Scott announced $616 million in Rebuild Florida funds, it was expected home repairs would have negated the need for folks still to be living in the travel trailers come March 2019. According to a Rebuild Florida spokesperson, 1,128 households have registered for assistance. Of those, 477 have “been invited to apply.” Rebuild Florida must still conduct individual site reviews, and finish hiring the contractors to perform the repairs. The actual work of rebuilding homes has yet to begin. The deadline to register has been extended more than once, and is currently March 29. For more information, visit rebuildflorida.org.

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Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.