It was a year ago Monday that Brandy and Brandon Polous piled their 19 dogs and their cages into their cars and trucks, and as the smoke darkened the sky, they and their children fled the flames coming to dance across their neighborhood.
Their Wilderness Road home was spared, and so was most of a vacant lot right down the road, where thanks to a great deal that came his way not long after the fire, the family now lives. Brandon’s uncle Matthew Polous, on Ridge Road, wasn’t so lucky, they lost everything.
Neighbors like Jimmy Boone also bore the brunt of the destruction, which took out about three dozen homes completely, and left many homeless, when fire from a controlled burn in the adjacent state lands, one week after the private company that lit it and the state that contracted for it each said was out but wasn’t, reignited and, buffeted by a twist in the wind, sped southwesterly and led to a bewildered rush of cars and trucks, desperate people fleeing on a late Sunday afternoon.
Some stayed and fought the flames themselves, some with success and some without. Others were lucky because when the Eastpoint Volunteer Fire Department got there, their house was not among those that the flames made clear had little or no chance to be saved.
“I teared up when I saw people who had lost all their stuff,” said Brandy, reflecting back on watching people pick through rubble in the aftermath of the blazes. “Some of them, all they had was memories left, and they lost all of those.”
Their neighbor Jimmy Boone was among those whose home was consumed that afternoon. In the year that’s passed, he’s passed way, and his granddaughter now lives in the mobile home that he got from charitable donations that poured in to the sheriff’s fund.
Sheriff, county, CDBG all have helped
Within days of the fire, Sheriff A.J. Smith defied tradition, and beat the drum loudly for a GoFundMe charitable fund suggested to him by Gov. Rick Scott, who was among SUVs full of government officials who poured into Eastpoint like the thunderstorm that hadn’t come when the fires leaped from lot to lot.
The fact that no one had taken into consideration how dry and welcoming to a fire the conditions were at that time, baffles Brandy. “We’re hunters,” she said. “You could see how dusty it was.”
Within the first couple weeks after the flames were, this time, out for good, the sheriff’s fund soon swelled to several hundred thousand dollars, and the Eastpoint Fire House was soon packed with donations of everything from mops to shampoo to fidget spinners.
Boone’s mobile home was one of seven the fund bought with about $300,000, plus two more that two churches in the county bought, all given over to the residents, no strings attached.
Monies were also raised directly by the county through private donations, funds collected and managed by the organization that handles the support needs of the county’s emergency management office. At that time it was Franklin’s Promise, and the non-profit organization’s volunteers stepped in to manage the collection, as well as the multiple stacks of goods that had to be moved to the Carrabelle municipal building at the old high school.
A contract terminology dispute over how much direct and thorough scrutiny the county would have over the donation process led to a parting of their ways with Franklin’s Promise, and the shifting of this support function over to Capital Area Community Action Agency, a 50-year-old multi-county anti-poverty agency headquartered in Tallahassee that handles everything from Head Start to home energy efficiency.
Capital Area entered the picture after about $220,000 was given over from Franklin’s Promise, and since then, with the passing of time that greyed like ash the urgency of the situation, raised another $30,000 in private donations.
A chunk of that money went towards a bulk purchase of two dozen new camper trailers owned by FEMA, made possible through a partnership with the county.
All but three weren’t used at all, said Capital Area CEO Tim Center, and with the county willing to relax zoning rules in the affected areas, the deployment of the temporary homes began soon after the fire.
“It was twice as fast of what FEMA is able to do. These were brand new, with granite countertops and leather furnishings. In some situations they were not nearly the size of what they had before.
“It was a temporary fix,” he said. “We were shooting for initially six months, it took about a year. And we were able to provide housing rent free for that year.”
One resident liked the fifth-wheel enough to say she’d be willing to make repairs if she could keep it, rather than go for one of the new mobile homes that will soon be coming in thanks to a $2.6 million Community Development Block Grant the county secured to pay for them.
Center said the woman’s request to transfer title has to go through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, and the federal Housing and Urban Development, because the federal funding Capital Area used to buy the campers attached a federal interest to those properties.
“She said ‘this was nicer than what I had before. I’d like to have repairs made and keep it,’” said Center, noting that this should save about $40,000 over the cost of providing her a new mobile home.
As the remaining campers now are set to give way to permanent mobile homes, they are moving west, being redeployed to Gulf and Liberty counties.
“We get them cleaned up and repaired and make them available for victims of the hurricane,” said Center.
It’s all been new to Capital Area, which has in the past year opened a permanent office in Apalachicola, where Angela Webster serves as case manager.
“We have definitely elevated our presence in our county, we’re more accessible than before,” said Center. “(Capital Area) has not been in this space before, the state reached out to us to see if we could be the conduit to get housing relief to the victims of the fire.
“It took a lot of collaboration and partners from the county and state and governor’s office to help make this happen,” he said. “The fact that we had residents in housing within 30 days I think was a home run. The fact that it took another year, is a lot longer than I think we expected. I’m glad we’re moving in the right direction.”
Interest modest in CDBG funding
Permanent housing, in the form of one-, two- and three-bedroom mobile homes, bought from between about $65,000 and $80,000 from Ironwood Homes of Perry, will start coming in the weeks ahead, said Deborah Belcher, the county grant writer.
She worked with the state last year to reopen a $700,000 Community Development Block Grant, finished up in July 2018, which had been used to provide assistance to 10 households, including two replacement homes in Eastpoint, within the unincorporated areas of the county.
Belcher and state staff worked through the legal process of waiving the limit for how much county can receive, and by November, $2.63 million was added, targeted specifically for the Eastpoint fire zone, which includes portions of Ridge Road, Wilderness Road and Buck Street.
Applications were taken but not everyone could qualify. “Right now the county says they have to own the land,” she said, and they have to screen tenants for income eligibility. “As of now Franklin County does not have a rental rehab program for owners to get replacement homes built.
“There are rent limits they have to adhere to,” Belcher said. “The owner has to agree to a minimum seven-year affordability.
“Right now I don’t have applications from other people who qualify and are homeowners on the land and who have not been assisted already,” she said.
With 2018 limits set at gross income of $29,200 for one person, $33,400 for two. $37,550 for three and $41,700 for four, some people make too much money, plus there are requirements that they be up to date with taxes and mortgage payments.
“It doesn’t do any good to provide a home and they be behind on taxes or lost it in foreclosure,” she said.
The grants can be spent on dwellings damaged or destroyed by the fire, and the total cost of repairs is considered. “The CDBG program requires that everything that is wrong with a dwelling be taken care of during the rehab process,” Belcher said. “If the home was damaged by the fire and we are looking at assisting, then we have to look at everything not just the fire damage. We have to treat it as a normal rehab job.
“We can repair things that aren’t even damaged by the fire if the home had damage,” she said. “If it’s not worth the investment we look at demolition.”
The county waived zoning rules for a time, but those rules of one house per lot must be adhered to with these grants.
“We have one where there was a second dwelling on a lot and I have a copy of title to mobile home that was burned,” Belcher said. “We could not replace on the same location, it was illegal as far as zoning, as it was a second dwelling.
So far there are only five purchases on tap, with one of them completed. “They will arrive I’m hoping this month, she said.
“There are some people who I am hoping are going to get their title issues resolved, at least three to four right now,” Belcher said. “We have one that is a replacement, and the problem is care of property. State rules are that junk and trash or other normal code violations (can’t be present.). We’re waiting for them to finish cleaning up their yard. It’s a factor in eligibility.”
In other instances, individuals may be holding off for a windfall in their suit for civil damages. “Some still blame the state for damages, or think it’s important not have encumbrances. They still do not want to accept those terms and that’s their choice.
“I hope people understand that lawsuits typically are based on the value of what’s lost,” she said. “In this case what the county can provide for the dwelling may be greater than what was lost.
She said some delays have come because of due diligence requirements, for example environmental reviews, such as a biologist checking for wetlands.
“We couldn’t just start spending money back in November,” Belcher said, the matters often complicated because the monies were not as well-tailored and flexible as would be a disaster recovery grant.
And there can be title issues, complicated by divorce or family estrangement. “There are divorce situations where property was never divided between the ex-spouse and current spouse,” she said. “There are title problems on some of these.”
Requests that didn’t fit with the CDBG rules were referred to the SHIP program, all part of finding creative solutions to help people have a decent home to live in again.
On one of them the county provided $53,220 in assistance to someone who had insurance,” she said. “We paid what they did not have in insurance, and the mortgage got paid off. The owner didn’t have the ability to get a new mortgage.”
In another instance, the county will provide $80,000 to a family moving outside the fire zone but within the county.
“There are some that they don’t own the land, and so we have to have a place to put the mobile home,” she said. The terms are attractive, a forgivable 10-year mortgage with no monthly payments, that require flood insurance but, ironically, not for fire.
For those victims who were not income eligible for the CDBG funds, Capital Area plans to spend about $150,000 to buy homes for three of them. Center says there’s about $90,000 left, and some of that will go to plug other gaps that stand in the way of housing victims permanently.
“We would like to get ourselves of the business,” he said. “We have decided the priority is housing. But housing is but one part of the effort to make victims whole. They lose vehicles, the content of their homes, their livelihoods, in terms of boats used to work on water.”
Unless the county changes its rules, the funds won’t be going towards replacing those lost items. “The more permanent relief for families will have to come from the courts,” Center said.
The items donated for victims have been winnowed down, with Capital Area giving away remaining items to victims of Hurricane Michael. “Anything else we had Goodwill collect and we received vouchers for use in Goodwill stores for other clients,” he said.