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Florida’s Hurricane Sally victims face obstacles obtaining federal aid

Seleka Souls looks over a neighbor's home that was damaged by Hurricane Sally, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in Pensacola, Fla.
Seleka Souls looks over a neighbor's home that was damaged by Hurricane Sally, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, in Pensacola, Fla. (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Parts of Northwest Florida have been approved by President Donald Trump for federal disaster relief after Hurricane Sally drenched the region and caused massive flooding last week, but most of the money is only available to local governments -- not residents.

The disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency covers all categories of public assistance for hard-hit Escambia County, including direct federal aid. Damage estimates from Hurricane Sally range from $2 billion to $10 billion.

Local governments in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Washington counties will be reimbursed for protective measures.

In a news release, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the approval will help Escambia County’s long-term rebuilding from “the severe damage and flooding that Sally left in its wake.”

The governor’s office said FEMA continues to assess damage in the 12 counties approved for emergency protective measures.

DeSantis' office on Wednesday activated the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan program through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The Florida Division of Emergency Management is also conducting damage assessments that could ultimately lead to federal assistance for individual residences.

Waterlogged furniture and personal belongings line the streets of Bristol Woods, Holly Rose’s neighborhood just outside of Pensacola

“We started doing sandbags, trying to stop the water from coming in, which was a pointless effort,” Rose said.

She and her neighbor, Wayne Quarrier, didn’t have flood insurance.

“This neighborhood, unfortunately, has never been declared a flood zone,” Quarrier said.

Normally after a disaster, FEMA arrives to assess the damage. If it’s bad enough, it grants individual assistance to help victims like Holly and Wayne recover.

Any help recovering will likely have to come from the federal government.

“I mean my family won’t have a home if FEMA doesn’t step in,” said Rose.

But State Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola, told us the pandemic has complicated things.

“Even FEMA [is] trying to do things remotely,” Broxson said.

The small FEMA team that did come out determined there wasn’t enough damage.

>ocal governments are having to collect their own evidence to prove the damage warrants extra aid.

“We’re kind of exhausted with the COVID dilemma. We’re exhausted with a surprise storm. And now we’ve been told that the burden is on the citizenry to prosecute their own ability to deal with the federal government,” Broxson said. “What we’ve got to do is get people to bombard the counties with information so that we can improve our application to FEMA.”

The governor said in a Thursday press release that the state is conducting damage assessments and is continuing to work with FEMA to get individuals the help they need. But Holly and Wayne are skeptical help is on the horizon. They said Floridians best bet in any future storm is flood insurance, not federal aid.

“Don’t rely on anyone to step up and help even when they’re supposed to,” Rose said.

Broxson said he’s doubtful much if any help will be coming from the state, which has seen more than $2 billion in lost revenues due to the pandemic.