Waiting game for individual FEMA assistance

I-TEAM gets answers for families devastated by Hurricane Matthew

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – It has been 10 days since Hurricane Matthew devastated our coastline -- destroying beaches, roads and hundreds of homes. Now, desperate families are turning to the I-TEAM for help, wondering why they haven't gotten individual assistance from FEMA.

The Weather Authority forecasted Hurricane Matthew eight days before it hit. News4Jax Chief Meteorologist John Gaughan called Matthew "the one to watch" and "the storm of 2016." In fact, 24 hours before Matthew would hit Florida hard, NOAA referred to Matthew as a hurricane with potentially "catastrophic impacts."

Knowing what could happen and now that so much time has passed, the question from storm victims is should and could the federal government do more and sooner?

Greg Blaeford evacuated St. Johns County with his service dog, Pepper, and very little else. His Davis Shores home on St. Augustine's Anastasia Island is stripped down to the studs -- gutted by Hurricane Matthew's storm surge. News4Jax first met Blaeford hours after the storm hit.

"That island looks like a bomb site right now. It's a war zone," said Blaeford, who lives on Arricola Avenue.

The 7-foot storm surge in parts of St. Johns County was catastrophic. The life stories of people are now in shambles -- littering pristine neighborhoods. Debris is piled high, with many piles taller than any person walking through.

"Here's where we sleep," Blaeford showed News4Jax.

He's camping in his backyard. He's trying to keep looters and clean what he can, while both he and Pepper wait on FEMA and insurance adjusters.

"I just want somebody to pick up a shovel and help me," Blaeford said. "I'm not going to put on a charity spill to get someone to clean my swimming pool. This is a luxury item. I just want a place to live."

Around the corner from Blaeford is Cheryl Briggs.

"Yeah, we'd love help! Please!" Briggs begged. "Other than the National Guard, there hasn't really been any help. FEMA? I mean nobody has come."

Briggs is a local artist and she said she has only seen city workers and volunteers offering help so far. Briggs and her husband own two homes on Menendez Road. Matthew didn't spare either one.

"Now we are at a standstill," Briggs said. "We have no idea what to do next."

One street over from Briggs on Solano Avenue, Amy Arnow shares a similar concern.

 "I haven't seen FEMA. I haven't seen them," she said.

Arnow's home was flooded with storm water and raw sewage.

"I've lost 15 years, everything," said Arnow.

When News4Jax went into Arnow's home, we had to wear masks due to the smell of raw sewage inside the home, which covered the bathroom floor across from her son's bedroom.

"I just want to show you something," Arnow told the I-TEAM. "We had to leave our cats. They're OK. They're alive, but this is where they scratched trying to get out."

St. Augustine City Manager John Regan lives across from Arnow on Solano Avenue. His home was also swallowed whole by the storm surge.

"This is an unknown world that everybody's in," Regan told the I-TEAM. "Many people don't have flood insurance -- have lost everything. The federal resources are critical to our community right now."

"Do you feel like this process should be faster from the federal government?" the I-TEAM asked Regan.

"It would be greater if it were faster. I will tell you, we have people right now from the city and the county working round the clock to build what is this financial picture to speed up the FEMA process," he answered. "We are doing everything that we can."

As of right now, Florida and Georgia are waiting on President Barack Obama. He has already approved a major disaster declaration for both states -- which gives federal money for debris removal and infrastructure. But, so far, the president has not approved funding for individual homeowners and businesses.

The I-TEAM did find FEMA crews out surveying the damage first hand in St. Johns, Putnam and Clay Counties to tally the amount of damage and report back to the president.

"They're looking at everything. Everything," FEMA's Cheria Brown told News4Jax.

Brown is a public information officer with FEMA. She has been on the ground working to assess the damage along with Greg Hughes, who is also with FEMA.

"There is a process, but it's not too complicated, and usually we can get an answer hopefully within a week after all the numbers are done," explained Hughes.

The I-TEAM wanted to know, since a hurricane is a disaster that comes with advanced warning, is there more FEMA could do upfront.

"We don't have programs for that or money only after disaster has been declared," Brown explained. "How it works is FEMA comes in to work with the state. The programs we provide are for an actual disaster. Until a disaster is declared, the assistance for individuals -- those funds -- are not turned on until that county is declared a disaster."

In the meantime, FEMA said homeowners should take pictures and rely on public help, nonprofits and their own insurance companies.

It's a maddening process for storm victims like Briggs.

"Do you feel like FEMA should be further along at this point helping storm victims like yourself?" the I-TEAM asked Briggs.

"Oh my God, yeah. Absolutely," she answered.

The waiting game is something that angers South Florida attorney and disaster relief expert Scott Mager.

"You would think you could immediately apply online. If you didn't have a roof, you could apply and get money within days and start repairs. Or, if you don't have any food and water or shelter, you ought to be able to get money to go somewhere to stay and not have to wait," Mager told the I-TEAM.

Even if the green light is given for local homeowners and business owners to receive individual assistance from FEMA, the process could take some time. Mager said in order for survivors to be approved, they still have to apply for the funding help and provide the government with supporting documents like a home inspection. If approved, Mager explained it could take as many as 10 days for the money to come through.

Mager said in his experience, citizens need to demand more of FEMA.

"The answer is, you go to your lawmakers, you go to your local officials, you inundate city hall. You talk to officials and mayors to make sure they've made those applications for individual assistance programs," Mager said.

Adding to the FEMA confusion is a message many News4Jax viewers are getting from FEMA's website. After hearing the state of Florida had been declared a disaster -- which again, provides federal money for debris removal and infrastructure -- many went online to file a claim for their home or business. Viewers are plugging in their address and getting this message: "No disasters declared for Individual Assistance were found for this address." You're getting that message because individual funding hasn't been approved, not because you don't qualify.

Mager recommended skipping the online process altogether. He said either call FEMA directly or print out the forms and mail them in. He said this will get you on a preliminary claim list if that individual funding is approved.

Mager also said owners of homes and businesses should consider hiring a lawyer to make sure they get what they should -- not only from their personal insurance companies but also FEMA (if that additional funding is approved.)

Information for FEMA assistance

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio urges President to approve individual assistance

On Saturday, Oct. 15, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to immediately approve individual assistance for seven counties to help residents recover from Hurricane Matthew damage.

"I saw firsthand the devastation this major hurricane has caused to northeast Florida," Rubio wrote. "I met with Floridians who were forced out of their homes and had to stay in hotels or with family or friends. I also spoke with many others who do not have those options or the resources to leave their homes while they are damaged and unsafe to live in.  I spoke to homeowners who lost everything, and others who are optimistic about the recovery but require assistance." 

Rubio also stated in his letter that the road to recovery for his constituents will be a long one and will take communities and government at all levels.

"Therefore, I write in full support of the state of Florida’s request for individual assistance to be granted to the following counties: Brevard, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns and Volusia. I also request this be approved immediately, so survivors of Hurricane Matthew can fully start the difficult process of recovering from the storm."

You can read Rubio's full written request to Obama here.

About the Authors: