(CNN) – A month after Hurricane Ian swept through Florida, Ciry Sosa and her family still live in the Fort Myers Beach apartment where filthy salt water has risen up to 4 feet, destroying most of their belongings and leaving behind mold on the walls. . They sleep on air mattresses and depend on donations of food, clothing and other essentials from neighbors and community groups.
After the storm passed, Sosa, 41, stood in line for three or four hours at a local library to seek help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA. She noted that she lived with her husband and teenage son and explained what happened during the storm. About a week later, an inspector came to take a look.
But that was the last she heard of the agency tasked with helping Americans deal with disasters. She did not even receive the $700 that FEMA distributed to several of her neighbors to help meet their immediate needs.
Meanwhile, the family cannot afford to stay in a hotel or rent a new apartment. And they’re waiting for news from their car insurer about a payment for their 2005 Ford Explorer, which was also flooded.
“I understand they have a lot of work to do,” Sosa, who also has a dog and two birds, said of FEMA. “But we should already have something. We need money.”
A month after the Category 4 hurricane devastated parts of Florida’s west coast, residents are still trying to rebuild their lives. FEMA’s assistance is essential for many of them.
Those affected by the storm told CNN they had different experiences with the agency. All praised the FEMA workers for their kindness, but some Floridians received help quickly, while others had to wait weeks. CNN plans to chronicle their relationship with the agency over the coming months.
Mixed reviews are nothing new. FEMA has long been criticized for providing unfair responses to hurricanes. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report last month that recommended the agency’s recovery and mitigation process focus on survivors with the greatest needs, particularly people of color and low-income residents. income, among others.
Hundreds of Millions of Dollars in FEMA Aid
On Wednesday, FEMA provided $643 million in individual assistance to residents of 26 Florida counties, the agency said. It operates 19 Disaster Recovery Centers, where people can inquire and register for help, check the status of their claims, and get help with any FEMA notices they may have received, among other services. Interpretation services and translated documents are available.
Disaster survivor assistance specialists, who go door to door in affected neighborhoods, have interacted with more than 60,000 people, according to FEMA. Hundreds of inspectors assessed damage to more than 164,000 homes.
To receive help, owners must first verify their identity and ownership, as well as show if they have insurance that could cover the damage. Then, FEMA assesses the extent of the damage and whether it affected the homeowner’s ability to live safely in the home. The agency then determines how much it will award the homeowner based on the level of damage and the average prices for materials and repairs in the area.
FEMA also provides a roof over the head of more than 2,100 households, with a total of nearly 5,400 people, through the Transitional Housing Assistance Program, which allows FEMA to pay directly hotels and motels in Florida, Alabama and Georgia that provide emergency shelter to survivors.
And on Wednesday, the agency approved Florida’s request for direct temporary housing in four counties, providing trailers and larger prefab homes for survivors.
Survivors who feel they have been overlooked should make sure their application and responses are up to date, said Melissa Forbes, assistant administrator for recovery at FEMA. They can also call the helpline – 800-621-3362 – to have a representative walk them through the process or let them know what they might need to submit.
Recognizing that some survivors may have difficulty navigating the system, FEMA is implementing an Enhanced Services Program to provide additional assistance to certain applicants who have been deemed ineligible but may in fact be eligible for assistance. This may involve having an inspector get back to them or a call center agent getting them through all the hurdles.
“So the responsibility isn’t really on them, but rather, we kind of help them manage their way through the program itself,” Forbes said, noting that the agency has “some leeway to growth to be better able to support tenants.
Some Floridians get help quickly, while others wait
Francie Pucin is thrilled with FEMA, which has already provided her with funds for damage to her Fort Myers home. She had finished renovating it two weeks before the storm surge filled it with water to the ceiling, rendering it uninhabitable.
The 55-year-old also received $700 for her immediate needs and $2,900 for two months’ temporary housing for herself and her two cats.
Pucin, who moved to Florida from the Chicago area last year, temporarily moved into her parents’ condo in Pompano Beach, Florida. When she regained internet access, she spent 20 minutes seeking help from FEMA online, which she said was a very simple process. A few days later, she was intrigued by a notice in her account that her application was pending, but she couldn’t go through when she called. Then she tried at 7am, spoke to a rep, and resolved the issue quickly.
About 10 days after applying, she was at home when the inspector called. He came by later in the day.
Although she collected the title deeds to her home before fleeing, she didn’t need them because the inspector looked at her file on the county tax assessor’s website. Within two days, the funds were in his bank account.
“It’s really humbling,” said Pucin, a retired insurance agent. “I was like, ‘Wow, what an amazing country we live in.’ I hope they are there for everyone as they were for me.
Although she hopes to restore her home, Pucin has heard rumors that Lee County may not allow residents of Palmetto Palms RV Resort to rebuild because it is a few miles from the gulf.
Meanwhile, Pucin is still waiting to hear from FEMA about receiving a trailer to live in while she figures out what to do with her house. As she is due to move out of her parents’ home in mid-November, she expects to need rental assistance from the agency as she does not expect to receive the trailer until early next year.
A pending issue: She is considering whether to file a claim with FEMA for the contents of her home. But an agency representative told her she must first apply for a loan from the Small Business Administration, which offers low-interest loans to homeowners and renters in declared disaster areas, and that she was rejected. Then she can turn to FEMA for funding.
Other Floridians, however, are still waiting for help from FEMA.
If Karen Watmough doesn’t receive the FEMA funds soon, she may have to move back to Tennessee to live with her father. About to turn 60, she doesn’t like the idea.
Watmough had been living on a sailboat at a marina in Fort Myers Beach since 2016. She was vacationing further north in Florida when Ian struck. It took his friends three days to find the boat, Sahara Wind, named after the Saharan air layer, which has been shown to suppress hurricane activity. He ended up on land, at the corner of the marina, under two shrimp boats.
Watmough, who worked as a housekeeper at a flooded resort, called FEMA in early October and was immediately successful. The rep opened a claim for her and said someone would be in touch to look at the boat.
On October 20, the inspector came, took all the pictures he could and said it was a total loss. It was fantastic, Watmough said, helping her remember the items she had on board. But he told her he had no berth for the boats that were primary residences. So he wrote “other” and the dimensions, 36 feet long by 14 feet wide.
Now she expects to know any day now how much help she will receive from the agency. Watmough, who canceled her boater’s insurance in August because the annual premium quadrupled to $1,000, hopes to use it to buy a camper or trailer.
“Things are still so up in the air until I find out what FEMA is doing,” said Watmough, who is temporarily living with a friend in Fort Myers. “It’s pretty much one day at a time.”
Meanwhile, his friend Robert Heather had more trouble with his FEMA claim for the loss of his first-floor rental apartment in Fort Myers Beach, where he nearly drowned until his neighbors rescued him through a window. . He then went to live with a friend in Nashville, where he had to buy new clothes because he lost virtually all of his possessions, as well as his car, in the hurricane.
About 10 days after filing his claim, he called and learned that his claim had been closed because he was not on site for an inspection and had not named anyone as his representative. But he also wonders why he didn’t receive the $700 payment for his immediate needs since the liquor store and the inn where he worked part-time jobs are both closed due to damage from the storm.
Because he’s not sure he’ll ever get any money from FEMA, he’s in no rush to come back and reopen the claim. He thinks he will get there in early November.
“I don’t trust them at all,” Heather, 73, said. He hopes to get a loan from his bank to buy a trailer to live in when he returns to Fort Myers Beach, as his apartment won’t be habitable for a year. .
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