There is nothing more unsettling to a campground or RV park operator than lacking control over whom is staying at their park.
But many Florida park operators effectively relinquished much of their control late last year when they signed contracts allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to use their facilities as temporary shelters for thousands of people whose homes were destroyed by last summer’s hurricanes.
FEMA, park operators learned, does not and cannot discriminate against people in need in emergency housing, regardless of their background. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a college professor or an axe murderer,” said Tom McDanel, manager of the 157-site Covered Wagon Travel Park in Estero, Fla.
To make matters worse, we’re told, while FEMA representatives were diligent about telling park operators they couldn’t discriminate against FEMA tenants, they nevertheless made other promises to park operators that FEMA couldn’t keep. “We signed a contract with a real nice (FEMA) fellow),” McDanel said. “He explained that we weren’t allowed to screen people. I said we had a restriction on big dogs and he said he would put ‘no pets’ in the contract.”
So what did McDanel end up with?
“There’s one lady with three teenage sons and three pit bulls,” he said.
And where is the FEMA representative who wrote his contract?
McDanel has no idea. In fact, he’s had two other FEMA representatives assigned to his park since he signed the contract last summer. “I think the last guy just wanted to fill (the trailers) up and get out of here,” he said.
The problem, McDanel and other park operators claim, is that many of the representatives FEMA utilized to negotiate contracts with park operators have either left the agency or been reassigned somewhere else, leaving park operators with a bureaucracy that, in their minds, is largely out of control.
“There was no accountability,” said Steve Pigman, manager of the 243-site Tamiami Village in Fort Myers, which leased 70 of its sites to FEMA tenants from Aug. 23 to Dec. 15.
FEMA did not offer Woodall’s Campground Management an immediate response to campground operator complaints.
However, Linda Phelps, a Florida ARVC board member whose family owns the 356-site Upriver Campground in North Fort Myers, echoed McDanel’s complaints. “I told the (FEMA representative) that we are a 55-and-over park and that we have no children and no families,” she said. “He assured me they would do everything to make sure they got people over 55 in here.”
So who did Phelps receive as tenants for the 20 sites she designated for FEMA use? “We have a mix of single mothers with small infants and we have families with teenagers,” she said, adding that there were only a couple of FEMA tenants who fit the criteria she was looking for.
But while Phelps’ guests were very tolerant of the FEMA tenants, even feeling a certain level of empathy for them in that many of them came from lower socioeconomic levels, many of the park’s seasonal residents were frightened by their behavior.
“My family has owned this park for 20 years and we’ve never had to call the police out,” Phelps said. “But in a one-month period, we had the police in here four times due to (FEMA tenants) drinking and yelling and screaming and throwing things at each other. It has increased our need for additional security. We even did what I call a lockdown on New Year’s Eve.”
McDanel had to call the police to his park as well. “One guy was a thief,” he told WCM. “The sheriff showed me his rap sheet on the computer. Heck, it was two pages long!”
Pigman, for his part, has also had trouble with FEMA tenants’ “domestic disputes” as well as their use of computers he provides for guest use. “Our Internet service provider threatened to cancel our service because they were hacking other people’s computers,” he said.
Park operators also said they’ve had trouble with FEMA tenants inviting other people to live with them, in violation of their contracts. “I’ve got a young girl with three kids (as FEMA tenants),” McDanel noted. “The next thing you know, her brother and boyfriend are living there.”
Phelps had a similar experience. “Some of the FEMA tenants invited other people to come stay with them. So it required additional (staff) time monitoring who was coming and going. FEMA took no responsibility for it,” she said.
Despite these problems, park operators said their regular guests have tried to accommodate their temporary neighbors. Several guests at Phelps’ park, in fact, even purchased expensive Christmas gifts for some of the FEMA families, including new bikes and a TV. “We’ve had a combination of empathy and pure disgust for some of them,” Phelps said, adding that many of her regular guests are ready for the FEMA residents to leave.
Park operators, however, have mixed feelings about their FEMA experience. While the contracts have generated revenue during the late summer and fall that they wouldn’t normally receive, the experience has been disruptive to their other guests and to their businesses in general.
“You’re trying to do the right thing. You feel bad because somebody’s lost their home. But bottom line, your hands are tied,” McDanel observed. “If I had to do it all over again, I would not (sign contracts with FEMA) at all.”
Phelps maintained that many campground and RV park operators didn’t realize what they were getting into when they signed contracts with FEMA in the first place. “All of us were kind of rebounding from the shock of what was going on (after the hurricanes),” she said. “We kind of went into this agreement not knowing what we were doing.”
In the future, however, Phelps, who chairs Florida ARVC’s government affairs committee, wants to work with other park operators to develop more specific guidelines as to what park operators will provide to FEMA in the event of another disaster. She also wants FEMA to designate a single point of contact for campground and RV park operators so that they can hold the agency and its staff more accountable for their actions.
“I think it’s important to have guidelines set out from the beginning,” Phelps said. “As park owners, you need to know what you’re dealing with up front and accept the risks.”