Latronia Latson said she feels like she has been neglected in the recovery efforts from Hurricane Ian.
Latson, who lives in the Dunbar neighborhood in Fort Myers, Florida, said she can’t get to a relief center to get bottled water and other necessities being distributed because she doesn’t have transportation; the bus system is not running in her neighborhood. Her stove and microwave also mysteriously stopped working after the hurricane, despite power being restored.
Latson said the more affluent, predominately White communities seem to be getting prioritized in the storm recovery.
“They need to make it convenient for those that don’t have transportation,” said Latson, who is disabled. “We just don’t get the same service (as people in other parts of town).”
Latson is among the residents and community leaders in Florida who say the poor, majority Black neighborhoods of Dunbar and River Park in Naples are forgotten as rescue and relief teams descend on the areas hit by Hurricane Ian last week.
The residents say they were among the last to get their power restored and shelters and relief centers are being set up too far away for people who don’t have access to vehicles.
Officials in Fort Myers did not immediately provide a response to these concerns when contacted by CNN.
The city of Naples released a statement on Thursday outlining its efforts to assist the River Park community since the storm. The statement said officials opened a comfort center at the River Park Community Center on Sept. 29 that provided access to phone charging, air conditioning, water, ice and restrooms. Additionally the city said staff members visited River Park to speak with residents, developed a plan for debris removal, transported residents to shelters and partnered with local groups to serve and deliver hot meals, water and clothing to the community.
Yet Black residents’ complaints and questions about the warnings and response lay bare the racial disparities in natural disaster recovery each time a major storm affects part of the country. Several studies found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides less aid to people of color facing disaster relief compared to White people. Poor communities and communities of color are also often built in locations that are more physically vulnerable to extreme weather events and have less investment in their infrastructure, experts say.
Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged the inequity when she spoke last week at the National Committee Women’s Leadership Forum.
“It is our lowest-income communities and our communities of color that are most impacted by these extreme conditions and impacted by issues that are not of their own making,” Harris said. “And so we have to address this in a way that is about giving resources based on equity.”
Deanne Criswell, FEMA administrator, agreed that there are barriers to receiving federal resources. Criswell said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” earlier this week that her office is working to create more equitable access to FEMA’s disaster relief programs.
“One of our focus areas since I’ve been in office is to make sure that we’re removing those barriers,” Criswell said. “So these people that need our help the most are going to be able to access the help that we offer.”
Black activists and residents in Florida are pleading for more help from officials.
Vincent Keeys, president of the Collier County NAACP, said residents in River Park were already more vulnerable because it is a coastal community. The city of Naples, Keeys said, has worked to gentrify the area in recent years but has not built a sea wall that could provide more protection during hurricanes.
Some residents complained that they never even received a notification to evacuate their homes ahead of the storm, Keeys said.
The timing of evacuation orders has been a point of contention for Florida officials since the storm. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said officials in Lee County, where Dunbar sits, acted appropriately when they issued their first mandatory evacuations less than 24 hours before Hurricane Ian made landfall on the state, and a day after several neighboring counties issued their orders. Lee County officials have faced mounting questions about why the first mandatory evacuations weren’t ordered until a day before Ian’s landfall – despite an emergency plan that suggests evacuations should have happened earlier.
The city of Naples said in its statement Thursday that it issued mandatory evacuation notices to residents via email, the CodeRed system, social media and a press release sent to media outlets.
In River Park, many homes suffered 4 to 6 feet of flooding, downed trees and structural damage. Keeys said there are no shelters in close proximity to the neighborhood, leaving residents with nowhere to go if their homes are uninhabitable.
“Please, you cannot put our people in a flood prone situation and expect them to survive,” Keeys said. “At least, if humanly possible, help us improve, plan and make things better for human beings.”
Sharda Williams, of River Park, said she never received an evacuation order but people in nearby communities were told to leave. “No one came to our neighborhood and told us to get out,” Williams said. “Not one person.”
Now Williams said all she can do is “sit and wait until the help comes through.”
“You try and do what you can and that’s why, you know, we’re all pitching together and trying to help each other with what we can,” she said.
Curtis Williams (no relation to Sharda), another River Park resident, was also frustrated he didn’t get an evacuation order.
“Not one city employee, police or whatever, came through the neighborhood before the flood water and said there was a mandatory evacuation, not one,” he said. “They could have easily rode down here with a bullhorn, before the storm, and say ‘you people need to vacate.’ They didn’t do that.”
However, Naples said in its statement that the city’s first responders were trapped and its fire station was flooded. As a result, the North Collier Fire Rescue (NCFR) team responded to the River Park community with the high water vehicle. NCFR drove three vehicle loads of residents to high ground, which was at the Coastland Center Mall. Numerous people in the area were trapped and the city said its goal was to get everyone to safety and high ground.
More than 100 miles away in Dunbar, one pastor said while the Black community hasn’t received much support from officials, residents are leaning on each other to get through the recovery.
“We are trying to give some moral support, you know, with our neighbors and friends,” said Pastor Nicles Emile of Galilee Baptist Church. “We are working on helping our neighbors as much as we can and I can say that whatever we have and share with them.”