Seven years later, no relief from Wilma

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Lisa J. Huriash

Published December 10, 2012


TAMARAC -- For the residents of Southgate Gardens who lost their homes for good and are still winding their way through the court system, the pain of a storm that made landfall seven years ago is still fresh.

After a brutal rainstorm the week after Hurricane Wilma in 2005 forced her out of her condo at the Southgate Gardens complex in Tamarac off University Drive, Michelle Petinaud "bounced," staying with her daughter in a hotel, then with friends who demanded more money than she had to give. For two days they were even homeless, sleeping in her car in a Target parking lot.


In 2009, she lost her home to foreclosure. Her home is one of a half dozen units that residents say remain gutted all these years later.

"I go back there and I look," she said sadly. "On Saturday mornings. It was the first home I ever purchased in my life. I just look through the windows."

Now Petinaud is one of a growing list of Southgate Gardens residents demanding justice.

Attorneys for the homeowners are asking a judge to certify their lawsuit against the insurance company for the roofer and the former management company as a class-action lawsuit. Of 108 units owners, attorney David Bierman has 45 who want to sue. He's seeking a total of

Southgate Gardens residents said their lawsuit against the condo management company and roofer is to try to recover funds for the homes they have lost in foreclosure, but to try to bring closure.

$5 million to $7 million in damages, as well as punitive damages for gross negligence.

Hurricane Wilma clobbered South Florida on Oct. 24, 2005, killing dozens of people, cutting power to millions of homes and businesses and punching a sinkhole in Interstate 95.

Damage at Southgate Gardens included wet ceilings. But residents say the roofing company incorrectly laid tarps, causing holes in the ceilings, that led to more severe damage after a harrowing rainstorm the following week.

After residents were asked to move out so repairs could be redone, they complained the construction company unnecessarily ripped out walls.

"We don't know why, but they were ripping out walls before they even started fixing the roof," said Bierman. "The dream of homeownership for the residents of Southgate Gardens has been turned into a nightmare. ... These working-class residents faced destruction of their homes, loss of their biggest investment."

"You always think next Thanksgiving we're not going to be eating pizza, we'll be back in our house," said Holly Spear, who lost her home to foreclosure. "It's the Southgate money pit. Two weeks turns into two years turns into four years. It's like an onion. You pull back a layer and there's another problem. Another layer, another problem. And the onion stinks."

Spear said the Southgate Gardens saga caused her to become more involved in her church, trying to find answers.

"I'm trying to find peace and strength from this black cloud hanging over our heads for seven years," she said. "I want to see the light."

Residents said their belongings including lighting fixtures, kitchen appliances and furniture were thrown out by workers or stolen by vandals.

"Who steals a kid's bedroom set, her bike?" said Guitree Basdeo, whose daughter was 10 at the time the storm hit.

As the work dragged on, the homeowners board had to delay because it ran out of money and couldn't agree how to proceed. Basdeo, who said she tried to serve for a year on the board in an effort to speed things up, said homeowners spent about $2.5 million on repairs, but about half a dozen units are still gutted today.

"They took that money and walked away," she said of the companies hired to make the fixes. "Then we hired a contractor and paid $500,000 and then they left."

Fed up, Basdeo filed the first lawsuit against the original contractors and the former property managers in July 2007. The lawsuit sought damages for residents who lost their homes "for an extraordinary and unreasonable amount of time."

First State Development, a Margate company hired as the contractors, has since gone out of business. The most recent version of the lawsuit seeks damages from the company's Oklahoma-based insurance company.

Attorneys Clark Smith representing First State and Michael Mattson for Phoenix Management, the property managers, could not be reached for comment despite calls to their South Florida offices.

"It should have been wrapped up years ago," said Bierman. He said the case took so long in part because the insurance company for the roofer claimed it didn't have to pay because First State was not cooperating with the investigation, but a federal court ruled against them in September 2010.

Basdeo said became physically sick from the stress of Southgate Gardens. Immediately after the hurricane she took her daughter into a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in Margate until the government ended its assistance program. Then, she rented a room from a friend. For a time she lived with her mother. For two months, the two slept in the back seat of her car, eating meals of fast food, and going back to the apartment only to shower in cold water.

For years she tried to hang on to her home, paying the $657 monthly mortgage and the $319 in monthly association dues an amount that had risen when the condo board took out a loan to pay the contractor. She depleted her daughter's college account and her 401K retirement account $20,000 total to make the condo habitable.