Lawyer gives powerless residents hope

Howard Goodman Column

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

 

Think back for a moment to the hurricanes.

Remember how hard it was to go without electricity for a couple days?

Now imagine if you'd had to put up with that difficulty for a few weeks.

For Sherry Henderson, it has been almost three months.

While most of Palm Beach County has erased traces of Frances and Jeanne and gone on to life-as-normal, Henderson and some other residents of a Lake Worth trailer park are still living like disaster victims.

She washes her clothes by hand in a bucket because there's no power in the back of her trailer where the laundry room is.

She needs a flashlight to use her bathroom.

She keeps her food in a camping cooler and on shelves she set up outside her front door because her refrigerator isn't working and the un-air-conditioned kitchen is too hot to bear in the daytime.

"I call it my outside café," the 56-year-old former court reporter says.

A heart-attack patient, Henderson lives on a fixed income. She can't afford to take a hotel room or to move on. Without a car, she's having trouble even keeping her cooler stocked with ice.

Her neighbor Annie Johnston, 55, had to use a generator until a couple weeks ago, when she moved her trailer to a slip where she can get limited power.

The generator drank up $25 in gas a day, leaving her broke. It made so much noise that she sent her 13-year-old grandson to live elsewhere so he could study in peace.

She hasn't put up holiday lights, saying that would be too much of a drain on the trailer park's hobbled system.

"We can't have any Christmas," she says, matter-of-factly. "I'll basically be crying that day."

The deprivations at Tropical Trailer Gardens -- a rundown patch of 30 trailers parked amid an asphalt jumble of warehouses and small industries in full earshot of Interstate 95 -- aren't all the fault of the hurricanes.

Residents say the electrical wiring at the camp was old, frayed and ill-maintained even before the storms. But Hurricane Jeanne, which hit Sept. 26, blew down a line and did some other damage to the park's electrical system.

What's ensued since then is a tug of war between the city of Lake Worth and the park's manager, Wesley Cox -- and very little progress in getting the lights back on.

As recounted last week in Palm Beach County Court, where three residents sought an injunction to get their power restored, Cox insisted on doing the repair work himself, though he's no electrician.

Cox declined to comment on the residents' complaints.

Soon after the hurricanes, city workers stopped Cox from untangling two downed power lines, as he was attempting this while standing on a metal ladder.

The city has asked Cox to bring electricity up to code in the half-century old park, where rents go from $250 to $300 a month. Cox argued that the city insists on too expensive a fix.

After hearing all this, Circuit Judge Kenneth Stern expressed concern for the residents' welfare. But the best he could do was urge Lake Worth to expedite a permit whenever Cox files a plan to redo the system.

This sounded to me like a judicial brush-off, but Cathy Lively, the residents' attorney, said she was heartened by the outcome. She said it was a triumph just to get the judge to jump into the case.

Lively, who usually practices civil litigation and family law in Lake Worth, took this case for free after six residents found their way to her office. "They'd been living out of coolers for weeks," she told me. "I couldn't say no."

It was her first experience with mobile-home parks. And she quickly discovered that her clients were handicapped not just by a lack of money, but by a lack of legal recourse.

There's a state statute that says a mobile-home park owner must comply with building and health codes and keep utility systems in good condition.

But another part of the statute says that the agency in charge of mobile homes has neither the "power or duty" to enforce the regulations cited in the other part of the statute.

The only hope is for a court to enforce the law, Lively argues. By now, the lawsuit has grown to about 15 plaintiffs. That's almost half of the residents remaining at Tropical Trailer Gardens, which has room for 70 trailers.

"Everyone who had the chance to leave, left," Henderson says. "The only ones left are people like us, who are stuck here."

Luckily for them, Lively sympathizes.

"Imagine living for months without power, and coupled with that, not having the financial ability to go out and eat when you want," she says. "They're truly living in conditions I don't think any of us can imagine."

For the residents of Tropical Trailer Gardens, indifference has been as big a foe as the hurricanes.

If their fortunes change, it will be because one lawyer gave a damn.


Howard Goodman's column is published Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at hgoodman@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6638.



 
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