Nation

Many in Texas, Florida still waiting for federal aid after hurricanes

HOUSTON — Outside Rachel Roberts’s house, a skeleton sits on a chair next to the driveway, a skeleton child on its lap, an empty cup in its hand and a sign at its feet that reads “Waiting on FEMA.”

It is a Halloween reminder that, for many, getting help to recover from Hurricane Harvey remains a long, uncertain journey.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Roberts, 44, who put together the display after waiting three weeks for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send someone to look at her flood-damaged home in southwest Houston.

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“I think it’s beautiful how much we’ve all come together, and that’s wonderful, but I think there’s a lot of mess-ups, too.”

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Outside the White House this month, President Trump boasted about the federal relief efforts. “In Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus,” he said.

FEMA officials say they are successfully dealing with enormous challenges posed by an onslaught of closely spaced disasters, unlike anything the agency has seen in years. But on the ground, flooded residents and local officials have a far more critical view.

According to interviews with dozens of storm victims, one of the busiest hurricane seasons in years has overwhelmed federal disaster officials.

As a result, the government’s response in the two biggest affected states — Texas and Florida — has been scattershot: effective in dealing with immediate needs, but unreliable and at times inadequate in handling the aftermath, as thousands of people face unusually long delays in getting basic disaster assistance.

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FEMA has taken weeks to inspect damaged homes and apartments, delaying flood victims’ attempts to rebuild their lives and properties. People who call the agency’s help line at 1-800-621-FEMA have waited on hold for two, three, or four hours before they even speak to a FEMA representative.

Nearly two months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, and six weeks after Hurricane Irma hit Florida on Sept. 10, residents are still waiting for FEMA payments, still fuming after the agency denied their applications for assistance, and still trying to resolve glitches and disputes that have slowed and complicated their ability to receive federal aid.

On Saturday night, the five living former presidents gathered at Texas A&M University for a concert to raise funds for victims of hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

Trump did not appear at the event, but sent a video greeting in which he avoided his past criticism of the presidents and called them “some of American’s finest public servants.”

In the northern Houston suburb of Kingwood, Brian and Monica Smith found 2 feet of water in their house after Harvey. They said they have received more help from their church, their neighbors and their relatives than from
FEMA.

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A $500 payment from FEMA to help them with their immediate needs was delayed by three weeks. And they waited 34 days for the agency to inspect the damage.

One of the biggest problems FEMA has had in Texas and Florida is the backlog in getting damaged properties inspected. Contract inspectors paid by the agency must first inspect and verify the damage in order for aid to be approved.

FEMA does not have enough inspectors to reduce the backlog, and the average wait for an inspection is 45 days in Texas and about a month in Florida.