“TEXAS – As of October 6, 2017
852,744 households have applied for assistance. Only 308,862 applications have been approved, but FEMA couldn’t provide numbers on how many are still pending and how many were denied.
People are denied FEMA aid for a wide number of reasons, and in some cases, it might seem, for no reason at all.
There is no “Emergency” in FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency)
Aid eligibility rests on being able to prove U.S. citizenship and residence at an address rendered unlivable. This might seem easy, but pitfalls abound: people who lived with roommates or family and might not be listed on a lease or a utility bill; people who lived with too many other applicants; people whose homes could be owned by incarcerated spouses or exes; exchange students, foreigners, and undocumented people who cannot offer proof of citizenship; people who lost their identification in the storm, or their landlord’s phone number. The list goes on.
Ironically, an application will be denied if the home is inaccessible to the inspector—for example, if it is because it is underwater or there are downed trees blocking the road in. “If the inspector can’t get in to review the condition of the property it will be denied because they cannot see it,” says Deanna Frazier, FEMA media relations manager for Hurricane Harvey. “People will need to go through the appeal process.” But many survivors of the storm aren’t aware of the appeal process. And even if they do try again, FEMA appeals can take up to ninety days.
When people apply for FEMA aid, they have to provide an alternate address to be contacted by mail, which presents another problem. “If we went out to check up on them and they weren’t there—maybe they moved since that time—that could trigger a denial,” Frazier says. “I know it may be a little onerous on the survivor, but we’re trying to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars and make sure that people are who they say they are.”
And if an application is denied, FEMA will only communicate the reasons via paper letter, which they mail to the last address registered in their system. That could be a shelter that evacuees have already left, or the house ruined in the disaster. For a transitory population, this method can seem designed to fail.
Even for the people lucky enough to avoid the initial denial, vouchers were only a temporary fix. On Saturday, September 23, one of two recorded phone messages from FEMA was sent to every evacuee using vouchers in the hotels. One said: You are noweligible for an extended hotel voucher. The other: You are not eligible for an extended hotel voucher. One word made all of the difference. And on the recordings, the difference between “not” and “now” was almost indiscernible, leading to confusion and jammed phone lines. The wait to talk to a FEMA representative on the phone was up to seven hours. In the meantime, FEMA’s website went completely down.
The first wave of FEMA vouchers expired at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, September 26. Many were extended for fourteen days, but for those without further vouchers, the struggle deepened. Suddenly, they were left with no shelter, no money, and even less to eat. According to Frazier, on September 24, there were 69,185 individuals in 24,440 voucher rooms. Two days later, there were 59,195 individuals in 21,046 rooms. That meant almost ten thousand people had to make new arrangements.
What’s happening in Texas right now is a test case for the first wave of homelessness post-disaster. The end of September began the critical first-month juncture when every entity possible must act in order to seal the cracks that vulnerable people can fall right into.
These are some of their stories.
Soft-spoken electrician Larry Garcia, 51, was living in an RV park next to the shoreline in Palacios. His RV was almost paid off. Garcia, who was living on workman’s compensation following a serious injury, evacuated from his town of 4,682 people to Austin on August 23. The storm took out much of Palacios.
The week of September 18, he’d driven back to Palacios to meet the FEMA inspector, who declared his RV a total loss. He returned to Austin, where his truck broke down. He spent the Friday in the hotel praying that his voucher would be extended. It wasn’t.
When he got a FEMA representative on the line, they told him that his trailer was livable. He protested: FEMA and the insurance company both claimed it a total loss. But the representative wouldn’t budge. “I said, ‘What do you want?’” Garcia remembers. “‘Are you really telling me now I have to go and live underneath a bridge? You’re just going to throw all these families out in the street?’”
Before he received his now-expired voucher, Garcia stayed at the Delco Center, a Red Cross shelter in Austin, arriving before the storm hit. Six days later, he was ejected in the middle of the night from the Delco Center for distributing socks, underwear, bedding, and jackets.
“Children were shivering. They weren’t giving nobody clothes,” Garcia says. “The lady next to me was sleeping on a towel on the hard floor. So I asked people’s sizes and went to Walmart and came back with things for people.”
The police, according to Garcia, did not respond well. “They took me in the back and interrogated me for maybe two hours,” he says. “They said I should have donated them to the Red Cross so they could distribute it. I told them I haven’t had a traffic ticket in thirty years. I’m not doing anything wrong. I begged them if I could stay to the morning, but they said, ‘No, Red Cross wants you gone.’ So I was out there in my truck at night, I didn’t even know where I was.” Several witnesses, both Red Cross volunteers and shelter residents, confirmed Garcia’s account.
“FEMA is putting me out, and Red Cross put me out,” Garcia says. “Now I’m just out.”
Garcia is planning to return to Palacios when he gets the insurance settlement for his trailer. It might take a month or more, during which he’s not sure where he can go. When the check comes, he will buy another RV on the shoreline—and move it to higher ground when the next storm is whipping up in the Gulf.
Erica Danbury and her baby boy, Jojo*, were camping in someone else’s FEMA voucher room, hoping their own application would move from “pending” to “approved.”
A young woman from Vidor, Danbury arrived in Austin in a 1991 Buick station wagon with a truck camper upside down on top, loaded with cardboard boxes and extra car tires strapped down with rope. She brought her neighbors and their two children, whose truck had taken on floodwater, with her. Danbury came to Austin because she remembered traveling to the capital as a child.
The group didn’t go to the Red Cross shelter, but they didn’t have a voucher yet either, so they slept in the car. Danbury worried that abuse could take place at the shelter, and that because of the trauma of losing her home, her mental state was too fragile to be around hundreds of people. Instead, she messaged some Hurricane Harvey relief Facebook groups asking for a place to stay.
Then her neighbor’s FEMA aid and hotel voucher were approved. But her voucher was still pending. “We lived so close to each other. It doesn’t make sense,” she says. “I lived in a stilt house next to the reservoir. When they opened the dam, my house went completely underwater.” Her frustration made her voice tremble. They all moved into a Holiday Inn double queen room. She slept in the bed with three children, and her neighbors slept in the other bed.
Danbury, who lost her phone in the evacuation, doesn’t know how to contact her landlord—or if he’s even still in the area. Unable to produce a lease or a utility bill, or pictures of her furnishings, it’s unlikely that she will be approved for any aid. A woman she met at the hotel gave her money for a new phone and to pay her phone bill. Besides her foods stamps, that’s the only money Danbury has had since leaving.
On September 23, her friends got the “not eligible for an extension” voice recording from FEMA, and Danbury began to sob. “I just don’t even know what I am going to do. I have nowhere to go. I have nobody.” As she nursed Jojo, she began texting the few phone numbers she had to try to find the next place.
With a lead from an acquaintance on September 28, Danbury contacted the owner of a bed and breakfast in San Marcos, a scenic river town south of Austin that hasn’t had any business since the hurricane. Its primary clientele hails from Houston, and the B&B’s business has been limited since Harvey. The owner had offered to host a few evacuee families temporarily, and invited Danbury to come meet her. Danbury and Jojo moved in later that night.
Their precarious position will resume again when tourists seeking a respite from the city book the B&B’s rooms. But before the travelers start to frequent the bed and breakfast again, Danbury can imagine, for a few more days, that they are in a safe home.
Abe Louise Young is a writer and educator in Austin, and the co-director of Prizer Arts & Letters.
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