Southwest Florida residents forced out of their homes by Hurricane Charley could find themselves homeless again — this time by the barrage of seasonal visitors making their way south for the winter.
According to the Fort Myers News-Press, longstanding reservations are bumping storm victims holed up in vacation rentals or living in temporary trailers while their homes are being rebuilt.
Even relief workers are being told they have to leave their hotels to make way for tourist season.
“There’s just nowhere to go,” said Caesonia Hembree, rendered homeless when Charley destroyed her North Fort Myers house. She and her family have been living in a travel trailer supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at Tamiami Village & RV Park in North Fort Myers.
Now, they have to be out Dec. 15.
It is a new wrinkle to a long-term housing problem created across the state by the season’s four hurricanes, further inflamed by the area’s dependence on tourism.
Hembree and her family are among dozens struggling to find housing in an already battered and bruised housing market. Charley wiped out more than 31,000 dwellings when the storm plowed ashore near Charlotte Harbor on Aug. 13.
Countless residents still can’t return to their damaged homes. The vacation home and condo market also was slammed – one-third of lodgings in Charlotte County and more than one-fourth on Sanibel and Captiva islands alone. Two of the area’s major resorts, South Seas Resort & Yacht Harbour on Captiva and Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa at Punta Rassa – won’t open until next year.
As a result, year-round residents are battling snowbirds and other visitors for the same accommodations.
“Are they being asked to leave after a period of time? Yes they are,” said Betty Williams, economic development manager for Charlotte County, “but they were told that at the front end.”
The bottom line is that snowbird spending drives the local economy, tourism officials said, representing a $2 billion-per-year shot in the arm for area businesses.
Part-timers’ spending clout is best illustrated by state sales tax collections. In Lee County, the total spiked up to more than $3.7 million in April. That is 53 percent more than the $2.4 million collected in August 2003.
“We know it’s important to the economy. … It’s also important to the recovery,” said Brad Gair, in charge of housing issues for FEMA.
“We’re confident we can handle both.” he added, noting FEMA has to find new places for 125 travel trailers in Lee and Charlotte Counties alone.