GOLDEN GATE ESTATES, Fla. – Artist Mary Lundberg wanted a fresh start, and in 2010 that led her to buy a home in Collier County.
“I moved here in 2010,” says Lundberg. “I had just completed cancer treatment. And that was the house, that was the project I jumped into to get my life back. Things were just really bad, so I thought, ‘I’m going to go as far south as I can. As soon as the doctors say, “You can go,” I’ll go.”
Little by little she worked to make it a home and filled it with her art and her memories. In 2017, Hurricane Irma halted this progress.
As the storm swept through Southwest Florida five years ago, Lundberg said a tree fell on her septic tank and debris returned to her home. The storm damaged her roof and windows.
Lundberg says her insurance company would not cover the cost of the repair, and FEMA refused to help. Their last hope was a program called Rebuild Florida Housing Repair and Replacement, a statewide program run by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).
The state designed it to help homeowners like Lundberg who are unable to turn around to repair or rebuild their homes after a storm.
“And the whole time I’m in high spirits,” Lundberg, “like I can’t believe they’re going to help me. That’s great.”
The plan is to tear down Lundberg’s house and build a new one. So far, nothing has been done on her house, she says.
“Oh man, five years,” she says. “Still waiting.”
The holes in her roof are still Irma’s, and Lundberg says they were partially covered with tarps by a friend. With each storm, the damage to her home grew worse.
The damage is visible on the walls and ceiling, as well as their art. The mold keeps spreading, the cracks keep growing and Lundberg keeps waiting for signs of progress.
“You feel like you’re the only one and you feel like you’re forgotten,” she says. “It’s a terrible feeling.”
She’s not the only one. For Irma alone, the state awarded more than $430 million to repair and rebuild damaged homes under the Rebuild Florida program. Hundreds of homes in Southwest Florida have weathered storm after storm without the help of a state program to which they are already eligible.
“Why is it allowed to continue? Because people are hurt,” says Lundberg, “and there are a lot of people out there who are hurt.”
We have forwarded your questions to the DEO. Deputy Secretary of State Benjamin Melnick says they’re trying.
“I wish I could snap my fingers and make it happen right away,” says Melnick. “The focus is obviously on getting people back into decent, sanitary and safe homes.”
We asked why so many houses are still not finished. Melnick said it would take time to meet federal requirements and find the right contractors.
The department also says they want to be efficient with the money they received from the federal government. Over the years, Melnick says, they’ve only gotten faster.
“The longer the program has been running,” he says, “the more effective it has become.”
For Lundberg and more than 300 other homeowners in Southwest Florida, work still needs to be done. She worries the same could happen to hundreds of people after this year’s hurricanes.
“I want them to feel better if they show Ian and Nicole,” she says. “I want so much better for her. I never want to see anyone sit down [for] 5 years. Absolutely not. It’s terrible!”
The department is asking the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for more funding to help survivors of Hurricane Ian. Melnick says this will not slow down the remaining work for the Irma survivors.
“The work is not done yet. There’s still a lot to do,” he says. “And we are committed to it.”