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Hurricane Wilma victim is still waiting for FEMA aid

John King says he's been waiting.

Ever since Hurricane Wilma smashed his mobile home near Lake Park four years ago today, he has waited for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to give him the new one he says he was promised.

FEMA offered one, he says, but at 19 feet it was too long for his lot. The agency also offered a temporary one that he would have had the option to buy after a year. But he says he can't find the paperwork, stuffed somewhere on the cardboard-strewn bed or in the stacks of lawnmower wheels or in the basket holding a dozen TV remote controls.

He says most of his dealings with FEMA were by phone or in person. He doesn't remember the names of the people who visited. He admits he hasn't talked to the agency in three years. He has letters in which local agencies complain he won't call them back.

During Wilma, he was "away," he says. He doesn't say he was cooling in the county lockup.

In the 18 months after Wilma, FEMA says it provided 1,182 trailers to storm victims across Florida to use as temporary housing, either at no cost or for $500. The agency says 125 were sent to Palm Beach County.

But in King's case, FEMA is hamstrung by privacy rules, and can say only that it tried. It really tried.

"There is a limit to what we can provide," the agency said in a statement. "In especially challenging cases, individuals choose not to accept the offer of a helping hand. In these situations, there is little more that anyone can do to have a successful outcome."

Normally, that's where a story would end, it if were written at all.

But there's a little more to John King.

He's one of those people whom, depending on your point of view, society helps either way too much or way too little.


King will be 80 in July. His hair is white and thinning, his baby blue eyes are rimmed in red and his palms grip the handles of a walker.

For 35 years, he says he was Johnny King, professional wrestler.

But now Johnny's eyes cloud from macular degeneration. He has arthritis, neuropathy and hypertension. He shows bills for three heart operations, totaling about $300,000. Medicare paid most of it, but the "amount due from patient" on each bill is in two or three or four figures.

He's living on disability payments and Medicare. His landlord says he hasn't paid rent in a year.

His son, Kevin, says King stayed with him during one operation but is too independent to live anywhere but by himself.

"He's like a hermit," says Ellen Carney, the mobile home park manager. "He's a very strange and dangerous man. He chases people out of there when they try to cut his grass."

King says he ran away from home at 13. "I went back and my parents had moved. That was a dirty trick, wasn't it?"

He says he wrestled in Japan and Australia and in front of movie stars and politicians. He took on Gorgeous George, the Great Malenko, Captain Lou Albano - "all the biggest names in the business."

His son says it's all true. He remembers fishing with his dad and the Brisco brothers and watching Johnny wrestle at the old West Palm Beach Auditorium.

"It's unbelievable how sharp his mind is, trapped in that decrepit body," Kevin King says.

When Wilma struck, "I don't know where I was then, but I was gone two-three weeks," Johnny says.

Court records show he was in jail from July to December. He had failed to appear in court after Palm Beach Gardens police arrested him, saying he spat at a fireman, kicked an officer and punched another in the mouth.

He has been arrested 19 times dating back to 1969. Usually, charges were dropped or reduced to misdemeanors.

When he got out of jail, Kevin says, "he was very upset to find his property was damaged and some of his appliances were gone."

Johnny King says Wilma tore away his screen enclosure, thieves made off with a washer and dryer and drug addicts stripped off aluminum.

"This was a nice trailer," King says. But now, he says, "If they knew I was living here, they'd condemn it."

Except for a few nights a month, Johnny now stays with friends. In his trailer, he points the glowing end of a cigar at holes in the ceiling and warns that the floor might give way.

The bathtub and toilet don't work. The kitchen sink, stove and microwave are filled with dishes, rendering them useless, if they still work at all.


For its part, FEMA says it "works tirelessly to find long-term housing solutions." But it's clear that King's case has been taxing for both the federal agency and its local counterparts.

Debra McDonald of Palm Beach County's "211" agency wrote to King on Jan. 12, saying she had applied for food stamps, a free cellphone and an increase in his Medicare benefits. She wrote again on July 14 and Aug. 25. Each time, it was the same story: We had an appointment, we came, you weren't there.

"I have tried on several occasions to meet with you as well and you never answer the door," McDonald wrote.

The Florida Department of Children and Families wrote in January, trying to help with financial assistance for medical expenses. DCF counselor Helen Swain wrote again in August: Trying to reach you. Call in 10 business days or we close the case.

Also in January, the Area Agency on Aging said King had been placed on the waiting list for home-delivered meals and assistance in bathing and dressing.

He wrote on that letter, "B.S."

Then he spelled it out.