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A Wilma mess no one will touch

Hurricane Wilma ripped apart her floating home more than three months ago, and now Jackie Wuestenfeld, the city, and state wildlife officials are trying to solve a pressing problem - who is going to pay for its removal.

Wuestenfeld owns the largest of about a dozen floating homes rendered unlivable when Wilma pounded Miami-Dade County Oct. 24. Flotsam litters the water's surface as some of the partly sunken homes - including Wuestenfeld's five-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house - make eerie creaking sounds as waves ripple past.

Wuestenfeld, who was dropped by her insurance company after the 2004 hurricanes, says she doesn't want money to rebuild her home. She wants help paying the estimated $17,000 to $20,000 cost of having a salvage company remove the debris.

"These boats look terrible. Everyone wants them out," said Wuestenfeld as she perused the scene. "I'm not saying we're not responsible. Just not for that much."

Unlike houseboats, which are usually anchored offshore, the floating homes at Gator Harbor West Marina are permanently docked. The marina charges up to $900 or more for lease space and pays the state for use of the bay, while the city also collects taxes on the marina.

Mayor Joseph Geller said his office has received complaints that the mangled homes are an eyesore, and the debris could present further danger if not removed before the 2006 hurricane season.

Some of the floating homes have been declared derelict or abandoned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"They're victims and we're trying to help them," said Capt. Dennis Post of the commission's law enforcement division.

The removal of lost, abandoned or derelict boats has become a larger problem for state officials since the busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, said Maj. Jim Brown, boating and waterways section leader for the wildlife commission.

Brown said derelict or abandoned boat removal is not part of the commission's budget, and the wildlife agency would seek reimbursement from individual vessel owners if it ends up disposing of a boat.

In the case of North Bay Village, both Geller and Post said the marina owner should bear some responsibility. The city spent $44,000 to remove damaged boats from the marina after Hurricane Katrina but was not reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, City Manager Charity Good said.

FEMA cannot provide public assistance funds for debris removal for the marina because it is a privately owned entity, agency spokeswoman Dasha Castillo said.

Geller said taxpayers should not again foot the bill for disposal,which would range above $200,000.

"If we spend that money," he said, ". . . every one of our residents are placed in the position to be the insurer for a marina business who has been making a profit all of these years by leasing space."

Geller said he has told legal counsel to pursue court action if the city doesn't get some cooperation from the marina by the next City Commission meeting in March.

Messages left with Gator Investments, which owns the marina, and its attorney were not returned.

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