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Storm-Damaged Floating Homes Await Removal

February 25, 2006

NORTH BAY VILLAGE, Fla. (AP) _ Hurricane Wilma ripped apart Jackie Wuestenfeld’s five-bedroom floating home more than three months ago _ but the debris hasn’t moved. She doesn’t want money to rebuild the 3,000-square foot house. What she does need is help sharing the cost for the estimated $17,000 to $20,000 it would likely take for a salvage company to remove it.

``These boats look terrible. Everyone wants them out,″ said Wuestenfeld, who owns the largest of about a dozen floating homes at Gator Harbor West Marina rendered unlivable when Wilma hit on Oct. 24. ``I’m not saying we’re not responsible. Just not for that much.″

Mayor Joseph Geller said his office has received complaints that the mangled homes are an eyesore, and the debris could become dangerous if it isn’t removed before this year’s hurricane season.

Some of the floating homes have been declared derelict or abandoned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which sent Wuestenfeld a letter saying that failure to remove the damaged vessel could result in civil or criminal penalties.

That warning worried Wuestenfeld, who pumped much of her money into her floating home. The former Army nurse recently had hip surgery and now lives in a small apartment with her husband. She lost everything she owned in Wilma, including family pictures and her cat.

``We’re not criminals and you shouldn’t be chasing us for the money,″ Wuestenfeld said.

The wildlife commission has backed away from the penalty warnings and now is working to find a way to get the boats out of the marina, said Capt. Dennis Post of the commission’s law enforcement division.

``They’re victims and were trying to help them,″ Post said.

Maj. Jim Brown, boating and waterways section leader for the wildlife commission, said the wildlife agency would seek reimbursement from individual vessel owners if it ends up disposing of a boat.

Removal of derelict or abandoned boats is not part of the commission’s budget, he said.

Unlike houseboats _ which usually are anchored offshore _ the floating homes at Gator Harbor West Marina are permanently docked there. 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.

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.

The mayor said taxpayers should not again foot the bill for disposal of the dozen or so damaged floating homes damaged by Wilma.

``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,″ he said.

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

Messages left with Gator Investments _ the company that owns the marina _ and its attorney were not returned.

Meanwhile, Wuestenfeld, who sent a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush and attended a City Commission meeting to plead her case, has been fielding bids from salvage companies.

``My whole thing is that somehow, some way, there will be some agency that will say, `You don’t have to pay for this,‴ she said. ``That’s my wishful thinking.″

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