Eyewitness Report: Hurricane Michael Recovery Efforts
By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest
When a natural disaster occurs, the media usually arrive soon after the first responders. Reporters wade knee-deep in flood waters, walk along streets where hurricanes have flattened homes or ride in helicopters to give audiences a bird’s-eye view of the widespread devastation.
Federal, state and local assistance soon follow when the governor declares a state of emergency and requests federal assistance from the President. The Federal Emergency Management Agency swings into action when the President signs off on the federal assistance request.
But within a week or so after the disaster and the press leaves, the survivors face months or even years of rebuilding their community and their lives outside the glare of the media.
One of those people helping communities to rebuild is a FEMA employee who is going door to door to assist Floridians during recovery efforts from Hurricane Michael. Because of her agency affiliation, she is not authorized to speak publicly so we can’t reveal her identity. She says she volunteered for the Florida relief effort because she “really wanted to see first-hand what the survivors were going through.”
Learning Survivors’ Immediate Needs and Providing Assistance
She is working directly with survivors, “going door to door, boots on the ground,” to learn of their immediate needs. Among the questions she asks is whether they’ve registered with FEMA for financial assistance and temporary housing. If not, she goes over the forms that could provide them with low-interest loans for home repairs, debris removal and a FEMA trailer to live in if their application is approved.
Because every disaster is different, FEMA must remain flexible in addressing the needs on the ground.
For example, following Michael, Panama City area residents were concerned about when and where their children would go to school. The area of destruction was 55 miles in diameter and some available schools were two hours away or more. Since the hurricane, however, some area schools have reopened easing parents’ concerns.
She says when FEMA shows up, survivors see a little bit of hope. People often think that FEMA can come in and quickly distribute mobile homes to those without a place to live, but that is a misconception.
There are numerous logistics issues that must be resolved before the trailers can be assigned to survivors, she says. Vacant areas must be located to park the trailers, the owners must agree to rent their lots, and permit requests must be filed and approved by the city for water and power hookups.
With next year’s hurricane season in mind, one option available is FEMA’s travel trailers. In the event of another hurricane in the same area in 2019, qualified residents with travel trailers will be able to tow their trailer out of harm’s way well ahead of the storm.
FEMA’s Temporary Housing program provides money to rent a different place to live or a temporary housing unit (when rental properties are not available). Funds may also be available for homeowners to repair damage to their home not covered by insurance. FEMA may provide up to $33,000 for home repair; then the homeowner may apply online for a Small Business Administration Disaster Loan Assistance or by calling 1-800-659-2955.
She explains that FEMA is there to provide support, not to take over the relief efforts. She says she and her colleagues take their instructions from the state government in Tallahassee.
It is up to state and local authorities to provide the tents and other temporary shelters that became common sights soon after Michael. The municipal government also directs the overall cleanup effort, including the removal of the tons of debris that remain.
Hurricane Debris Stalls Reconstruction
The longer the debris sits, the more it becomes a breeding ground for snakes and other pests, she warns. More importantly, the mountains of debris hinder rebuilding efforts because contractors cannot work on a site until all the rubble and ruined home furnishings are removed.
She would like to see more trucks available to more rapidly haul away the debris and the many downed trees. Their removal would help to bring back a sense of normalcy to the community, she says.
Survivors acknowledge that the downed trees, the destroyed homes and debris littering the streets are a depressing sight. She wishes the national news media would return to call attention to the massive cleanup effort underway.
Her advice to the local inhabitants in the Florida Panhandle: “Don’t give up. It may seem like the end of the world. Keep fighting. Things will get better, not overnight, but they will get better.” Several vendors are raising funds to help rebuild the hard-hit Mexico Beach community by selling t-shirts with the hashtag #mexicobeachstrong.
Volunteers Needed to Assist FEMA Relief Efforts
She says anyone who can help by providing trucks, food catering, medical assistance, construction work, or other skills is welcome to apply to volunteer with FEMA.
Following a disaster, FEMA’s mitigation programs play a critical role developing and integrating disaster operations policies, procedures, and training under the National Response Plan. The Regional and Disaster Support Branch within the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration acts as the coordination point for mitigation disaster operations and activities.
Disaster survivors may qualify for federal assistance by checking FEMA’s Disaster Assistance Center or by calling the FEMA Helpline at 1-800-621-FEMA (1-800-621-3362). Specific FEMA assistance information about Hurricane Michael is also available.
In addition, the Red Cross is assisting with emergency relief, especially helping survivors reconnect with loved ones. The Red Cross emergency app features an “I’m Safe” button that allows users to post a message to their social accounts, letting friends and family know they are out of harm’s way.
The Red Cross also offers the Safe and Well website, a secure option that allows people to list their own status and allows friends and family to search for messages from their loved ones. To register or search for a loved one on the Safe and Well website, visit redcross.org/safeandwell. You can also call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) to be connected with your local chapter.