LEHIGH ACRES, Fla. - Mike Manikchand points toward his neighbors - a half-dozen empty, foreclosed-upon homes, sitting on weed-strewn yards - and he wonders: What will happen if a hurricane slams into southwest Florida this year?
His simple answer: "A lot of these places will get destroyed."
Unoccupied, these homes would be defenseless in a storm; there will be no one to put up shutters, batten down garage doors, and otherwise secure homes. But that's not all. Nearby homes and their residents would also be at risk from wind-propelled debris.
Lehigh Acres and other communities at the epicenter of the nation's housing crisis are coming to realize that this year's hurricane season, which began this month, represents yet another pitfall. Hurricanes could make hazards of thousands of foreclosed-upon houses, and their diminished value could decrease even more.
"Here's your choice," said Julie Rochman, president of the Tampa-based Institute for Business and Home Safety. "Spend a little bit of time and money to secure the properties to withstand wind and water, or not do the right thing and have the homes become damaged and are valued less."
The Associated Press Economic Stress Index - a month-by-month analysis of foreclosure, bankruptcy and unemployment rates in more than 3,000 U.S. counties - confirms that some of the areas most likely to be struck by a hurricane are suffering the most in this recession.
In March, there were 281,691 homes in foreclosure in Florida and coastal counties in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
Lee County, where Manikchand lives, is among the hardest-hit counties in the country. A 22-year-old pharmacy student, he took advantage of a dismal housing market and bought a foreclosed duplex for $36,000.
In coming months, he and millions of others along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts will dutifully track tropical weather forecasts and stockpile batteries, flashlights, and tins of tuna, hoping that hurricanes blow harmlessly out to sea.
But who will secure all the foreclosed homes if a storm does approach? No one really knows.
In some cases, a property-management company hired by the bank could do the work. Or it could be a real estate agent, a homeowners' association, or even resourceful neighbors who clear debris from yards and board windows.
Yet no state laws mandate who prepares buildings before a hurricane; even officials from the Florida Division of Emergency Management say that securing foreclosures isn't a concern.
"It's not an aspect that we really deal with," said John Cherry, the agency's external-affairs director. "Our No. 1 concern is life safety."
Quick evacuation, not securing vacant homes, will be the priority if a major storm looms, others say. But shutterless homes can be a major safety hazard in a hurricane. And a region full of destroyed or heavily damaged homes would depress real estate values even further.