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Florida disaster official suggests using foreclosed properties as hurricane housing

TALLAHASSEE — The state's top disaster-management official has a use for all those foreclosed homes in Florida: temporary hurricane housing.

"This option didn't exist two or three years ago, before the real estate market crashed," said Ruben Almaguer, interim director of Florida's emergency management division. "We can't not look at something staring us directly in the face. It's a solution to a potential problem."

Almaguer asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to consider the proposal this week during a mock-disaster drill that spotted vulnerabilities in the state's emergency response plans.

The mock drill's scenario: A Category 4 storm nearly bankrupts the state, displaces 1 million residents, destroys homes and schools, and even frees zoo monkeys that terrorize Floridians.

During the weeklong exercise, Almaguer said, it didn't take long for the 250 state, federal and local officials to figure out that neither Florida nor FEMA has enough shelter space to house the newly homeless.

Florida has about 250,000 homes in the process of foreclosure and up to 300,000 unsold homes on the market.

Using the foreclosed homes is just another example of using whatever shelter is available, said Almaguer. Six years ago, he noted, the notion of using cruise ships as shelter space seemed out of the question but now it's a recognized option.

Almaguer said other issues to emerge from Wednesday's exercise included a suggestion that the state must ensure it can tap the credit market in a crisis.

Jeff Bryant, FEMA's federal coordinating official in Florida, was cautious Wednesday about the potential of using foreclosed homes as hurricane shelters. He stressed that — for now — the idea is just one of many to come from this week's hurricane exercise at the Tallahassee Emergency Operations Center. He said FEMA will explore it in the coming weeks.

"In the event of something like that, you have to look at every available option," Bryant said. "But we need to talk to our legal authorities. We need to talk to our federal agencies."

There are lots of questions about how the use of the homes would work, including liability issues and whether the banks holding the homes would be amenable.

Tampa-based foreclosure attorney Scott Stamatakis pointed out that it might be difficult to find out who owns the foreclosed properties. Some are controlled by investors who limit their use.

Obtaining use of a large number of foreclosed homes after a hurricane might also be complicated because it would involve negotiating with numerous banks, said Broward County housing director Ralph Stone.

"I think it would be a whole lot of work," he said. "I think it's much easier said than done."

The aftermath of a giant storm will leave its scars not only on homes but also on the insurance policies of everyone in the state, Gov. Charlie Crist acknowledged Wednesday in a wrapup of the weeklong mock emergency drill.

Ever since the Legislature and Crist expanded the role of state government in the hurricane insurance market in 2007, former House Speaker Marco Rubio — a Republican running against Crist for U.S. Senate — has warned that Florida is "one big storm away from the largest tax increase in state history."

Crist said insurance companies are overcharging Floridians, as if a storm had already hit.

"I don't want our citizens to be gouged when we aren't having storms," Crist said. ''Now, when we do have a storm, we all have to pay — not only the customers, not only the state, but our federal friends. And I think that's a more appropriate route to take."

Insurance aside, the state would be in disastrous condition if a big storm hit. The disaster drill this week retraced the path of the 1928 hurricane that hit the county line between Miami-Dade and Broward, sliced through Tampa Bay and then hit the Panhandle.

Almaguer said a storm like that would be "three times worse'' than Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and forced many to relocate to Texas and other states. He said he doesn't want to see the same kind of exodus from Florida.

"If we don't provide them with adequate temporary housing here, guess what: They leave, and they don't come back," he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

Florida disaster official suggests using foreclosed properties as hurricane housing 06/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 11:33am]

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