Hurricane Irma leaves elderly residents stranded, but most want better than a shelter

Chaos seems to never end for those living at Civic Towers.

Residents of the public housing complex in Allapattah were desperate to return to normalcy after Hurricane Irma. They returned from shelters and friends’ and families’ homes and hotels this week to find the complex boarded up, as the city determined a safety inspection was needed after Hurricane Irma.

Nowhere to go, many of the residents, some elderly and disabled, slept on the sidewalk Monday night.

James Bernat, executive officer to the police chief and homeless coordinator for the Miami Police Department, said he had no idea of the situation until Tuesday afternoon.

Tuesday, police arrived to relocate around 50 residents in coordination with the Florida Division of Emergency Management and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson.

“I was concerned about their safety,” said Bernat. “We’re trying to accommodate …We’re here to try to help.”

By 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, however, only four boarded the bus to the shelter at the Miami-Dade Fairgrounds in West Miami-Dade. Many had just left shelters, where they slept on cardboard boxes and didn’t have access to showers or blankets.

Bernat said the fairgrounds shelter has cots, showers and food — and pets are allowed. And the shelter is housed in a large building that can accommodate everyone, he added.

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Maria Rojas and Fernando Delgado wait for more information on the status of their building at Civic Towers in Allapattah on Tuesday, Sept. 12. Rojas racked up her credit card to stay in a hotel for five nights during Hurricane Irma. She said she could never stay in a shelter after two bad experiences years ago. Delgado was able to stay with his daughter to ride out the storm, but was unable to return to his apartment on Tuesday.

Sydney Pereira

Civic Towers has been under renovations for months, leaving residents living amid a construction zone.

Tuesday’s ordeal intensified their frustration.

Angry residents yelled at police officers, upset there wasn’t a better solution than being bused to a shelter. Some wanted to be housed in a hotel, as some residents had earlier this year when their units were under construction. Officers tried to explain they could not stay in buildings that were unsafe.

“Nobody wants to leave because their whole world is in their homes,” said Olga Vicente, who has lived in Civic Towers since 2013.


The city’s building official, Maurice Pons, said Monday the structures have to be inspected to see what damage they have sustained from Hurricane Irma. One of the inspections took place Tuesday.

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Civic Towers Senior public housing complex in Allapattah sustained damage from Hurricane Irma, including ripped-off panels on the seventh and eighth floor.

Sydney Pereira

The city’s third-party provider, J.E.M. Inspections and Engineering, began the building inspection Tuesday, though a company official on site could not provide any details on the inspection.

An engineer is expected to assess the damage on Wednesday, according to Bernat, the police representative.

The project’s owners, Redwood Housing, said in a statement Tuesday it is “helping to find temporary living arrangements for residents of Civic Towers and Civic Towers Senior, which were evacuated under a mandatory order issued by the City of Miami.”

The California-based company, which bought the buildings for $45 million in February, said the buildings had suffered damage from the hurricane.

“We are working tirelessly to get residents back into their homes as soon as possible.”

Redwood Housing and Peter Vicari, the general contractor for the construction project, said residents cannot return to the apartments until the city signs off on the buildings’ safety.

“It’s basically in the city’s hands … We’re at the mercy of the city,” Vicari said Monday.

From the outside, the most visible damage was ripped-off exterior panels on the seventh and eighth floor of one building, with paneling from the ninth floor dangling above. Though entrances were blocked with plywood, windows into residents’ apartments were not shuttered. Some windows were left open to the elements—to the irritation of residents and Vicari.

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Waldo Salazar, 55, and his 90-year-old mother were two of the four who boarded the bus to a shelter after their home at Civic Towers was no longer accessible from damage sustained after Hurricane Irma on Tuesday, Sept. 12.

Sydney Pereira

Waldo Salazar, 55, was one of the four who boarded the bus Tuesday to the shelter. While he was grateful to be heading to a shelter with bedding and food, he felt for the people who chose to stay behind.

“It’s not great whatsoever, in essence, to see people walk away and people irritated and disturbed, uncomfortable,” he said. “But something should have been resolved. These people should have been sent somewhere that they can sit and rest and not live in the extra discomfort of going to a shelter.

“I’m going to the shelter because I have no choice,” said Salazar, who cares for his elderly mother. “And I have an elderly person who’s 90-years-old and I have no other choice.”