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Why the Florida Keys still need support, a year and a half after Hurricane Irma

In March, FEMA ended its temporary housing program for people affected by Hurricane Irma, which slammed the Florida Keys in September 2017. But as rebuilding continues after one of the costliest storms in U.S. history, shelter for survivors and volunteers continues to be a major challenge in an area known for a critical shortage of affordable housing. Special correspondent Alicia Menendez reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just about every region in the country has been hit by natural disasters or extreme weather in the past two years.

    We have now a pair of stories on how people are trying to recover.

    First, we go to the Florida Keys, where Hurricane Irma struck hard a year and half ago. Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, ended its temporary housing program for people impacted by the hurricane.

    But, as special correspondent Alicia Menendez reports, rebuilding remains a work in progress.

  • Brian Vest:

    Well, the first thing you have to do is get everything out. Water level was right here. So, all the Sheetrock is wet.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    For Brian Vest, it's been a long 18 months. The storm ripped his roof off, water seeped in, and black mold invaded. The rebuilding process has taken time, savings and patience.

  • Brian Vest:

    Just did the drywall last week, because we didn't do the drywall because we had the roof problem.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Yet, Vest is in a better position than most.

  • Brian Vest:

    We have resources, as I call them. There are others down here who do not, the elderly, retired who are living on Social Security, who've been here for 40 years. They're the ones who are really struggling, because their place has been paid for, for two decades, and now it's destroyed, and they don't have the money saved up to fix it.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Hurricane Irma hit the Keys in September of 2017 as a major Category 4 storm. It was estimated to be the fifth most damaging storm in U.S. history at a cost of $50 billion; 77,000 people call the Florida Keys home. Hurricane Irma wiped 1,100 homes off the map entirely. And thousands more sustained damage.

    The rebuilding efforts still under way have exposed a larger challenge, one that existed before Hurricane Irma hit: a lack of affordable housing.

    Simple geography is one of the biggest obstacles to building of any kind here. The Keys are a 120-mile-long chain of narrow islands.

  • Michelle Coldiron:

    The cost of land is more expensive. The cost of the materials to come into our county is more expensive. And then finding the people to build the homes is more expensive, because we're in a work force housing crisis. Who's going to build the homes? Where are they living when they're here working as a construction worker?

    This is where our families live.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Michelle Coldiron is the recently elected commissioner of Monroe County. That includes all of the Keys.

  • Michelle Coldiron:

    I think where we're being challenged right now is being — is getting our reimbursement from FEMA. There's so many moving parts, getting funding approved vs. getting a bill approved. It's multipronged. So it takes longer.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    The Avenues neighborhood on Big Pine Key is one of the places Irma hit the hardest. The island lies between two of the bigger population centers, Key West and Marathon, and many of the people who live and work in the Keys call it home.

  • Maggie Whitcomb:

    Some people never came back. Like, they didn't come back after, after the storm. There was nothing to come back to, and I think they knew it.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    It's here that philanthropist Maggie Whitcomb is trying to help address the affordable housing problem one cottage at a time.

  • Maggie Whitcomb:

    You can see the water through that window.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    The Florida Keys Community Land Trust is building homes that will be designated as affordable rentals permanently.

  • Maggie Whitcomb:

    Stackable laundry, that was donated.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    One is finished. Three more are under construction, with more to follow.

    The structures are elevated to avoid flooding and engineered to withstand 200-mile-per-hour winds.

  • Maggie Whitcomb:

    We can't survive here if the people that make things run every day aren't — aren't here. And they can't stay if they don't have a place to live.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    But the need here is greater than the land trust can meet. Homelessness is a real problem here. Stephanie Kaple, who works with people experiencing homelessness in Key West, says Hurricane Irma only exacerbated the problem.

  • Stephanie Kaple:

    A lot of individuals who were impacted by Hurricane Irma don't believe that they are homeless. They consider themselves a survivor of the storm.

    But, as the programs had ended, and as FEMA has rolled out its support, they are now looking at this like many are. You know, they have to find their own solutions now.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Tourism in the Keys has rebounded since Irma. And as the biggest economic engine, that's vital to recovery efforts, but it also creates a unique challenge.

  • Michelle Coldiron:

    As every hotel in the county reopens, and they do their ribbon-cutting, and we're thrilled, we're happy. It's great. Yay, business is coming back to life. And we have to balance that with so many of our families are still struggling.

    And the last thing we want are volunteers across the United States to think we don't need any more help, because we still do.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    Volunteers are sorely needed. And one group thinks it's found a new way to accommodate them, shipping containers.

  • Michelle Luckett:

    These are 40-foot steel containers that, the blue ones, each one sleeps 10 individuals.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    You even have a sill for the cell phones.

  • Michelle Luckett:

    Yes, exactly.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    The idea was hatched by Michelle Luckett and the Monroe County Long-Term Recovery Group. This volunteer village will house people who want to help rebuild, but can't afford the steep price tag of a night's stay in the Keys.

  • Michelle Luckett:

    In high season, the hotels can range anywhere between $250 up to $400 a night. That's a bit much to ask a volunteer to come down to donate their time, and then have the expense of lodging as well.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    It's a new idea in disaster recovery, a mobile housing unit that can ostensibly travel wherever a storm, wildfire or earthquake hits.

    The county leased the land to the recovery group for $10.

    What do you think the recovery would have looked like if these units had been in place right after Hurricane Irma hit?

  • Michelle Luckett:

    I think if volunteer housing was a solved situation anywhere, not just in the Keys, but anywhere in the country, when a disaster hits, this is a viable plan that changes the narrative.

    Having volunteers come in — immediately after a storm, everyone wants to help, because what happens as you get farther and farther away from the storm is that people forget, and people outside of the community forget.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    And it's not just homes that need rebuilding. A critical ecosystem in the Keys is also in trouble. Mile after mile of the mangroves that encircle the Keys are dying, choked by debris left over from Hurricane Irma.

    Brian Vest has formed an army, the Conch Republic Marine Army, to try and help them.

  • Brian Vest:

    It would take an army to do all this.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    One boat ride at a time, he and teams of volunteers are spending their own money and time to pick up everything from gas cans to sofas to refrigerators.

  • Brian Vest:

    You find the whole world in here.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    But it's a drop in the bucket of what needs hauling out.

  • Brian Vest:

    The two of us just got this out in probably 20 minutes. And imagine what 100 people could do in a day.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    What do you need to bring this to scale?

  • Brian Vest:

    We need funding. That would give us the ability to acquire boats like this and put paid captains and deckhands on board, coming out and helping us clean up Monday through Friday, because this will take decades to come back, and we don't have that long.

    Our kids don't have that long. So we have got to do it, and we have got to do it now.

  • Alicia Menendez:

    That spirit is what's keeping people hopeful, even as rebuilding is estimated to take anywhere from three to five years. And that's without any more hurricanes.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Alicia Menendez in the Florida Keys.

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