By Tami Luhby, CNN
As those battered by Hurricane Ian contend with the storm’s aftermath, a multitude of federal, state and local agencies, along with nonprofit and charitable groups, are stepping in to provide for Florida residents’ immediate needs and to help them start rebuilding their lives.
Nearly 2,800 people sought a place to stay Sunday night in more than 30 shelters operated by the Red Cross and its partners. More than 2.3 million meals and 15 million water bottles have been distributed in seven hard-hit counties through the state response. More than 83,000 residents have already applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But not all of the help is immediately available, and not everyone can access the aid easily. Also, eligibility for the programs can differ depending on the circumstances.
States hit by natural disasters, like Florida, have to request certain waivers from federal agencies before some funds can flow. And past federal efforts, led by FEMA, have come under scrutiny repeatedly for their inequitable response.
Low-income residents and those who don’t have access to the internet will have a more difficult time finding immediate help and, especially, longer-term aid, said Justin Dorazio, research associate at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
“It’s a lot harder for certain communities that tend to be left behind in these types of processes and programs,” said Dorazio, who argues that assistance should be based on need and not damage.
A range of assistance
FEMA administers several programs to help provide eligible hurricane and other disaster survivors with places to live. It offers assistance to rent an apartment, house or other housing while the applicant is displaced from the damaged primary residence. The agency also can reimburse applicants for short-term stays in hotels, motels or other lodging. And it provides financial aid for home repairs or replacement for homeowners who live in the residences.
The agency also offers funding to replace furnishings, appliances, vehicles and certain other items to those who qualify. It can pay for medical or dental expenses caused by the disaster, as well as funeral expenses, moving and storage and increased child care costs.
Generally, this assistance is available to US citizens, permanent residents or certain others who live in the US. Applicants must first go through their insurance companies.
Aid is limited to 18 months after the disaster strikes, though it may be extended under extraordinary circumstances.
Other help is also available in Florida.
For instance, starting Monday, homeowners in Charlotte and Lee counties can sign up for Operation Blue Roof through the US Army Corps of Engineers, which will place temporary blue coverings on damaged roofs to allow the homes to declared habitable and to prevent further property damage.
Also, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures of mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration in the nine Florida counties that were part of President Joe Biden’s major disaster declaration.
And the US Department of Agriculture has approved several waivers to allow food stamp recipients in the affected Florida counties to buy hot foods with their benefits through this month, to receive replacement benefits, if needed, and to access their October benefits early so they could stock up. The Florida Department of Children and Families released more than $235 million in benefits to more than 773,500 households who were at risk of being impacted by Hurricane Ian.
The Florida agency is also applying for the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as D-SNAP, which provides help to low-income households who lost food because of a disaster. The Agriculture Department said it typically takes at least one week before communities are ready for D-SNAP because survivors are likely focused on their more immediate needs and may not be able to use the benefits.
Inequitable response to hurricanes
However, not everyone can access federal assistance, particularly help provided by FEMA, equally. The US Commission on Civil Rights last month published a report that outlined barriers to aid after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in 2017.
It found that nine days after the storms hit, FEMA approved nearly 23 times the amount of individual assistance for those affected by Harvey than by Maria — nearly $142 million compared to $6.2 million, respectively.
What’s more, Harvey survivors received nearly $1.3 billion in aid within two months of the hurricane’s landfall, while it took four months for Maria survivors to receive $1 billion.
Among the report’s recommendations were that FEMA’s recovery and mitigation process should focus on survivors with the greatest needs, particularly people of color, low-income residents, those with disabilities, immigrants, LGBTQ communities and other marginalized people. The agency should also create clearer guidelines to apply for aid and provide a sufficient number of staff fluent in the languages spoken in the affected areas.
The commission also noted that the lack of electricity and internet made it more difficult for those hit by the hurricanes to access federal assistance. It recommends that federal agencies provide access to technology to address the divide and create a paper application process if residents have no power or internet.
FEMA, which did not return a request for comment, has made some changes in its application process. For instance, starting this year, it allows homes to be inspected for damage even if the owners haven’t yet verified their titles, Dorazio said.
The agency is working harder to address some of the disparity issues, but it still nowhere near where it should be, said Elizabeth Albright, associate professor of the practice in environmental policy at Duke University.
“It’s not easy to get. It’s often slow,” said Albright, of FEMA’s assistance to help homeowners rebuild. “It’s oftentimes a challenge, especially when someone is going through such extreme loss, as is this case.”
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