FEMA floats idea for post-hurricane shelter: Cruise ships
By Robert P. King

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Saturday, March 26, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — Losing your home in the next hurricane might be a ticket to a government-paid cruise.

A federal emergency manager said Friday that the government is considering renting cruise ships after future hurricanes as one solution for a vexing problem: Finding places to house tens of thousands of homeless victims.

There may be no time for Treasure Coast residents to get protection in time for hurricane season.
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For short periods of a month or so, cruise ships might be cheaper than the mobile homes and 8-by-30-foot travel trailers that relief agencies bought by the thousands after last year's quartet of Florida hurricanes. The liners would be available quickly and would offer more comfort to the elderly and disabled. And if another storm threatened, the ships could easily cruise away from danger.

"It's actually one of the most cost-effective things we could do," Brad Gair, a recovery coordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said during the National Hurricane Conference. But don't expect slot machines, Broadway shows or four-star dining — Gair said FEMA would ask the ships' owners to eliminate all frills.

Still, Gair acknowledged a "perception" problem: How would federal money for cruise ships play in the press? After all, FEMA is facing criticism already for doling out $30 million in hurricane aid to people in Miami-Dade County, which went nearly unscathed by last year's storms.

"We're always concerned about headlines," Gair said. He said the notion still has some hurdles to cross before ships could be available during this year's hurricane season.

He said FEMA might be able to rent a cruise ship for as little as $100 per day per family, meals included. By comparison, he said, it costs millions of dollars to set up 100 families in trailers — making the ships less expensive for stays of as long as a month.

Agencies have spent from $20,000 to $35,000 apiece for travel trailers, said Jim Hampton, deputy coordinating officer for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Gair said the trailers likely will have little resale value after getting more than a year of daily use from displaced families.

Gair floated the cruise-ship idea during an otherwise wrenching review of the housing crisis created by last year's storms, which left state and federal agencies battling red tape and intergovernmental feuds as well as nature.

Among the snags:

• President Bush's swift declaration of a federal emergency paradoxically hampered the recovery by causing agencies to stop tallying the number of destroyed homes.

• Some counties tried to charge up to $5,000 in fees for each mobile home that the disaster agencies set up for hurricane victims, Hampton said.

"We just had a lot of building departments that their sole purpose was to collect the fees," said Hampton, who later declined to name the counties. "I think they felt that FEMA was the golden goose."

• FEMA strained the nationwide supply of travel trailers in its frantic efforts to house the victims, yet at first was filling only about 75 to 100 per day — far fewer than the thousands of people who needed a dry, safe place to live, Hampton said.

Both officials promised their agencies would learn from last year's glitches but acknowledged that many of the 16,000 currently displaced families — stretching from Palm Beach County to Pensacola — will probably still be in trailers or mobile homes a year from now. That means they could be in harm's way if another hurricane hits.

Even more incredibly, some victims still are trying to get into temporary housing, Gair said.

"I would give us pretty high marks for effort and barely passing marks for performance," he said.

In future storms, Hampton said, the state will make sure it has a finished disaster tally early on to give an accurate view of how many people need help. Traditionally, Gair said, those surveys were intended to help the state qualify for federal aid — but last year, Hampton said, the president's prompt declaration caused the work to stop.

"It was not a conscious decision," Hampton said.

He said he also will recommend to Gov. Jeb Bush that future state emergency declarations waive all building fees and permits for temporary housing, except for those requiring inspections of electrical systems. That also would ease the snags caused by widely differing permit requirements in each city and county.

Despite the toll of last year's storms, Hampton said, the state proved it was prepared to handle the storms — "not to say it was perfect."

Other speakers at the conference, such as former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, said Florida's experience proved the value of the toughened building codes adopted after 1992's Hurricane Andrew. Speaker after speaker displayed photos of intact post-1992 houses and even mobile homes next to images of splintered wrecks built in earlier eras.

Lauren Cain, bureau chief of consumer outreach for the Florida Department of Financial Services, said the state prevented a repeat of the mass exodus of insurers that occurred after Andrew.

Other speakers said last year's storms exposed a number of flaws, including many roofs that didn't blow off but allowed water inside, causing mold growth that rendered the homes unlivable.

And ponder this: It has been decades since a major hurricane hit a large city in Florida. So the greatest tests have yet to occur.

"This was not a catastrophic housing disaster," FEMA's Gair said, looking back at 2004. "We haven't come to that yet, but I'm afraid that we may have to soon."