More than one in three Florida households — 2.6 million — have applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster assistance since Hurricane Irma hit in September. That's aid to cover temporary shelter and other emergency needs. Homeowners with flood insurance are also applying for assistance. And depending on what kind of government help Floridians are seeking, the level of assistance varies from community to community.
On Marco Island, an affluent area south of Naples on the Gulf Coast, beachfront hotels and housing developments took the brunt of Hurricane Irma as the storm came ashore. Exterior damage to buildings, downed trees and yard flooding was extensive, said Dianna Dohm, executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce.
“But there were only a couple of homes on the island that had damage that would make the house uninhabitable,” Dohm said. “And I think that goes to our building codes, to everyone doing great preparation, having all our storm shutters.”
About 40 miles inland from Marco Island is Immokalee, Florida, population 25,000. It’s a mostly low-income immigrant community surrounded by tomato fields and citrus groves. The streets are lined with discount stores, packing plants and rundown trailer parks.
“Immokalee is a community mostly made up of immigrant farmworkers from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti,” said Julia Perkins, an organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group.
On a drive around town, Perkins pointed out a mobile home listing sharply to one side, part of its siding missing.
“This area is called ‘La Rata’ — ‘The Rat’ — and that’s one of the trailers that got blown off its foundations,” Perkins said. “This is almost all rental housing — trailer parks that were already in disrepair. A good bit of the housing in town was damaged by Irma, and there are lots of people who don’t have anywhere to live that is secure right now.” Some of the most severely damaged mobile homes were abandoned; many others had tarps covering roofs and windows, and were still occupied.
“We’re not strangers to being in a vulnerable place as a community,” said Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a former farmworker who now works for the Coalition. “Many of the places where people lived were already in a really bad situation. Whenever there’s a storm — it doesn’t even have to be a strong hurricane — it places people in danger.”
FEMA sent inspectors and mobile assistance teams to the area to assess damage and help residents apply for emergency assistance and Small Business Administration loans, and also provided money for temporary hotel stays, said FEMA spokesman Michael Wade. But Perkins said many local workers don’t own cars, and “the hotels were three hours away, so if your children are in school and you need to be here to get to work, that’s not an option.”
Language and citizenship can also be barriers to getting government help, said Rev. Karl Glander at the Immokalee Lutheran Church’s Amigos Center, which helps Spanish- and Haitian Creole-speaking immigrants.
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One day in mid-November, Glander was helping Nicolas Garcia, a 37-year-old Mexican immigrant who does not speak English, to apply for FEMA assistance on behalf of his U.S.-citizen children. “He didn’t receive any help from FEMA, and I know there’s help he can get,” Glander said. The maximum payout a household can receive from FEMA is $33,300.
Garcia said he owned a trailer worth $5,000 to $7,000 that was "totally destroyed" by the hurricane, and most of the family's possessions were lost. “From FEMA I need help," said Garcia, "money to buy clothes for my kids, to pay for what we need to live."
Glander said the church has brought in volunteer construction teams to do repairs so people can safely stay in storm-damaged homes.
“If the houses here had been built up to code, they would have been fine," Glander said. “The problem is there’s a lot of substandard housing, because there’s a lot of poverty. And there was already a housing shortage.”
Glander himself lives near the coast in Naples, one of Florida’s most affluent cities, and said his house also suffered storm damage: “I lost my roof — not structurally, just shingles. But I have insurance — whole different story.” One of the biggest problems he and his neighbors face, he said, is a shortage of construction workers for repairs. “I won’t find a contractor for six months to a year,” he said.
As of early December, FEMA had approved aid payments for more than 751,000 households, meant to cover emergency needs like temporary shelter, clothing and critical building repairs. The average FEMA emergency-relief payout in Florida so far for people whose losses are not covered by insurance is $1,254.
Meanwhile, more than 27,000 homeowners with FEMA flood insurance had been approved for payouts for their damages. Homeowners covered under flood insurance — who pay premiums — so far have received $15,015 on average, based on statewide data provided by FEMA.