LEHIGH ACRES — Mike Manikchand points toward his neighbors — a half-dozen empty, foreclosed-upon homes, sitting on weed-strewn yards — and he wonders: What will happen if a hurricane slams into southwest Florida this year?
His simple answer: "A lot of these places will get destroyed."
Unoccupied, these homes would be defenseless in a storm; there will be no one to put up shutters, batten down garage doors and otherwise secure homes. But that's not all. Nearby homes and their residents would also be at risk from wind-propelled debris.
Lehigh Acres and other communities at the epicenter of the nation's housing crisis are coming to realize that this year's hurricane season, beginning today, represents yet another pitfall. Hurricanes could make hazards of thousands of foreclosed-upon houses, and their diminished value could decrease even more.
"Here's your choice," said Julie Rochman, president of the Tampa-based Institute for Business and Home Safety. "Spend a little bit of time and money to secure the properties to withstand wind and water or not do the right thing and have the homes become damaged and are valued less."
The Associated Press Economic Stress Index — a month-by-month analysis of foreclosure, bankruptcy and unemployment rates in more than 3,000 U.S. counties — confirms that some of the areas most likely to be struck by a hurricane are suffering the most in this recession.
In March, there were 281,691 homes in foreclosure in Florida and coastal counties in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
Lee County, where Manikchand lives, is among the hardest-hit counties in the country. A 22-year-old pharmacy student, he took advantage of a dismal housing market and bought a foreclosed duplex for $36,000.
In coming months, he and millions of others along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts will dutifully track tropical weather forecasts and stockpile batteries, flashlights and tins of tuna, hoping that hurricanes blow harmlessly out to sea.
But who will secure all the foreclosed homes if a storm does approach? No one really knows.
In some cases, a property management company hired by the bank could do the work. Or it could be a real estate agent, a homeowners association or even resourceful neighbors who clear debris from yards and board windows. Yet no state laws mandate who prepares buildings before a hurricane; even officials from the Florida Division of Emergency Management say that securing foreclosures isn't a concern.
"It's not an aspect that we really deal with," said John Cherry, the agency's external affairs director. "Our No. 1 concern is life safety."
Quick evacuation will be the priority, not securing vacant homes, if a major storm looms, others say. But shutterless homes can be a major safety hazard in a hurricane. And a region full of destroyed or heavily damaged homes would depress real estate values even further.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters have projected a near normal year for hurricanes. They predicted nine to 14 named tropical storms, including four to seven hurricanes. One to three of the hurricanes are expected to be major.
Randall Webster, director of the Horry County Emergency Management Department in South Carolina, said if a storm does hit, properties in foreclosure could slow recovery if the county can't immediately find the owner, "especially if it were in a neighborhood where others around it were taking care of business and this one gets in rough shape," he said.
The issue of who cares for vacant homes during a time of crisis seems simple: The legal owner is responsible for securing the property. But communities are already struggling to get banks to mow lawns, much less put up hurricane shutters — if they weren't swiped from the foreclosed home, along with appliances, copper wiring and air conditioners.
If the bank hasn't yet taken the title of a home, the property is in a kind of limbo, and local officials or homeowners associations may have no legal right to trespass and secure it. And many hard-hit counties don't have the money or manpower to do it.
"Simple logistics tells me (the banks) don't have the staff to follow up," said Kenneth Wilkinson, property appraiser for Lee County, which in March had the third-highest foreclosure rate in the United States, after California's Merced County and Nevada's Clark County.
There are some places that are trying to board up windows and batten down garage doors, although largely to stave off crime. Wellington, in Palm Beach County, has gone to court to receive the legal okay to board up homes. And in Cape Coral, city officials have passed an ordinance that requires the owner of a foreclosed home to pay $150 to register the address and provide a contact number for the person who will maintain the property.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson has asked county attorneys to research whether it is legal to board up empty homes.
"If we board them up, we're protecting them," Aaronson said. "Hopefully we will be able to keep some of the value up."
Aaronson contends that the banks don't always maintain the homes and doesn't expect that they will in the days before a storm — and if the county takes over that responsibility, then he wants the banks to pay.
"We want to use the full power we have as a government to levy the greatest fines that we can to penalize banks for not taking care of the properties," he said.
Horry County's Webster says there might be another way for public officials to take matters into their own hands.
"If it became deemed a public health issue or public safety hazard, the county would have some legal recourse to secure it in terms of making it off limits or safer," said Webster, whose county includes Myrtle Beach and has seen foreclosures rise over the past year.
Some banks say that they have a plan for hurricanes; JP Morgan Chase says it will use property management companies and bank field employees to make sure properties are storm-ready. And if the homes are damaged or destroyed during a storm, said Michael Fusco, a spokesman for JP Morgan Chase, the bank "acts just like a homeowner" and will file an insurance claim.
Debora Blume, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo Bank, said her company hires local real estate agents who have been assigned to market bank-owned properties to secure homes against hurricane damage.
But one real estate agent in the Fort Myers area said the process of putting the maintenance work out to bid and then getting approval from the bank that owns the property might not be workable as a storm bears down.
"During a hurricane, we need to get out of town, not wait for approval for funding to secure a building," said Suzanne Sherer, president of the Realtors Association of Greater Fort Myers and the Beaches. "I won't have time to get a bid from a handyman."
In Lee County, metal hurricane shutters cover a few new, unsold homes. Many empty homes have swing sets in the yard, garbage cans strewn in the driveway and loose roof tiles, all of which could become projectiles during a storm.
Sherer said it would be "devastating" if a powerful storm similar to Hurricane Charley, which hit nearby Charlotte County in 2004, struck Lee County.
In Galveston, Texas, where more than 17,000 homes were damaged by Hurricane Ike last year, there are still many empty homes — but not because of foreclosures. The properties were damaged during the storm and owners don't have the money to rebuild.
"These homeowners have the biggest hurdles as far as getting back into their homes," city spokeswoman Alicia Cahill said. "A lot of the homes that were affected were lower income to moderate income families who didn't have a huge insurance policy or a lot of extra cash lying around to make repairs."
Tybee, Ga., Mayor Jason Buelterman says officials there haven't considered potential problems with foreclosures during storm season. Their first priority, he said, is assuring the safety of island residents and tourists if a hurricane heads their way. Dealing with foreclosed homes will be an afterthought.
Yet residents throughout the hurricane zone are worried, especially those who live in foreclosure-dotted neighborhoods. Armando Gonzalez, 72, retired from Miami to Lehigh Acres five years ago.
He and his wife moved to a small home a few blocks from the city center, in a quiet yet thriving neighborhood. But in the last two years, his neighbors left, either because of foreclosure or job loss. Now he's the only one on his block; the home next to him has a broken window and the one across the street is only half-built.
When asked what would happen to all the nearby dilapidated homes if a hurricane hit, Gonzalez shrugged and grinned.
"I can't do anything," he said. "Maybe I'll pray. God will save me."
Associated Press writers Kelli Kennedy in Miami, Michael Schneider in Orlando, Russ Bynum in Tybee Island, Ga., Juan A. Lozano in Galveston, Texas, and Bruce Smith in Myrtle Beach, S.C., contributed to this report.