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Natural Disaster Survivors Still Fighting for Relief Now Face Delays From COVID

The patchwork system of federal and local relief already tangled up in bureaucratic delays has come to a standstill.

People wear face masks as they queue at a supermarket during a mandatory confinement to counter the new coronavirus in Carolina, Puerto Rico, on April 7, 2020.

Part of the Series

For the first few weeks after a natural disaster, media and nonprofits swarm the affected area, giving much-needed attention to survivors and their needs. But for natural disaster survivors, the nightmare continues long after the media has left the area. Eight years after Hurricane Sandy, Staten Island is still feeling the effects of the storm; 15 years after Hurricane Katrina, much of the Lower Ninth Ward remains razed, and many of the areas that were rebuilt were completely changed forever.

For survivors of natural disasters of more recent years, recovery is still far from over. And, due to COVID-19, it may be stalled for an indefinite period of time.

Even survivors of the 2017 season, hit by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, are still in immediate need of things like housing, says Greg Forrester, president of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, a volunteer coalition which provides relief, knowledge and recovery for natural disaster victims in the U.S. “We still have large numbers of families that have yet to recover” from that season, he tells Truthout.

In Puerto Rico, even basic infrastructure isn’t back to normal. “There’s still plenty of simple things, like traffic lights still aren’t working since Maria. At first – that first year, year and a half, second year – we were like, ‘right, eventually it’ll get fixed,’” says Raimundo Espinoza, founder of Puerto Rico-based environmental nonprofit Conservación ConCiencia, a conservation organization that’s been helping coastal communities bounce back after recent disasters. “But then we kind of just lost confidence in that.” Last year, there were still 30,000 families living under blue tarps that had been established after Maria.

Just earlier this year, Espinoza says, it felt like there was “momentum” – people starting businesses, getting back on their feet, he says – but earthquakes that started in January put that to a stop. Thousands of homes were damaged, leaving an estimated 20,000 people displaced.

Then COVID-19 struck and put a wrench in nearly everything.

According to The New York Times, Puerto Rico has had about 8,500 cases and 155 deaths at time of writing – a relatively low case count compared to the mainland U.S., but enough to rock an already struggling island. Because of the earthquakes that are still ongoing today, “so many of [the survivors] still don’t have homes, and with COVID it just makes things so much worse,” says Espinoza. Most materials have to be shipped to the island, so even after construction projects were allowed again, shipping problems are still delaying projects and rebuilding.

Part of the problem for survivors looking for help is that even immediate disaster response in the U.S. is very much a patchwork, a “quilt of local, state and federal financial resources,” as Regine Webster, vice president of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, tells Truthout. If the government doesn’t fill the gap of helping with basic needs, nonprofit volunteers do; and if nonprofit help falls through, it’s up to the community to set up its own response, especially in later years of recovery. And, on top of figuring out housing, paychecks, insurance claims, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requests, inspections, form after form after form, survivors now have coronavirus to worry about.

In many instances, the aid is just not sufficient. Houston Public Media reports that most homeowners who were affected by Harvey are still waiting for payments. Because of the pandemic, many of them might have to wait even longer for assistance. “When COVID kicked in, it actually stopped all of our reconstruction, with all of the families that needed house repairs or fully rebuilding their houses, because it affected our full volunteer pool,” says Forrester. “So when we look at something like this, it really then delays that recovery another couple of years” due to the pandemic lining up with the more active volunteer months in the summer.

For those still in precarious housing situations after a disaster, the problems pile up. FEMA provides housing assistance for 18 months for those who were disaster affected. Some are running into the end of that period, yet still need housing because of delays, says Forrester. Affordable housing, forever scant, will be even harder to find with those affected by COVID-19 also seeking housing assistance.

Part of the problem, too, is that part of the funds for housing assistance must be paid locally; under FEMA’s public assistance process, after the first six months, FEMA fronts 75 percent of costs as long as there is a match of 25 percent from the local community.

Every volunteer hour worked can count toward the local match, explains Forrester, “but in this current environment … we’re not putting volunteers into the field in the numbers that we were before, or in the continuity that we had before.” Without volunteer hours, “that cost share can sometimes exceed what [governors] are willing to go ahead and pay,” says Forrester. “So what they’ll say is, ‘No, we’re not going to apply for the extension,’ which then leaves the survivors then to go ahead and fend for themselves after that first six-month period of time.”

Because of the pandemic, FEMA has been considering special circumstances: For survivors of 2018’s Hurricane Michael, FEMA has extended housing assistance past the 18-month period – but only for three months.

In low-income communities, the problems pile up even further. Often, after disasters, “landlords and management companies see this as an opportunity to take their insurance payoff, evict everyone, nicen the place up, raise the price and move new people in,” says Jena Garren, a member of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, a grassroots aid network that helps after disasters and is involved locally in COVID-19 assistance efforts as well. Those who lost their homes due to disaster may have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and find themselves even further isolated from their communities.

Ocracoke, North Carolina, a small island community, was just beginning to let tourists back on the island after it was devastated by Hurricane Dorian last year when the pandemic hit. Ocracoke experienced some of the worst impacts of the hurricane, with historic flooding closing roads and flooding hundreds of homes. The island doesn’t have a hospital, only a small health care center, so with coronavirus, “the concern now is a lot of tourists returning to this area that has little medical infrastructure when they’re still recovering from a hurricane,” says Garren.

Garren also points to Lumberton, North Carolina, a low-income, Indigenous community (indicative of communities already traditionally ignored by the government) where help from the government can be even harder to find, even for homeowners. Lumberton was hit by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and again by Hurricane Florence two years later, both causing historic floods that had a likelihood of happening once every 1,000 years. “I remember very vividly one woman that we encountered in Lumberton whose entire house was destroyed and the check that she received from FEMA was like 300 bucks,” says Garren.

Disasters take a huge mental health toll on these communities; after the wine country fires in 2017, for instance, the Sonoma County mental health director said that his department received double the number of calls they normally get. On top of potential health concerns like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from these disasters, survivors will also get slammed by the PTSD that scientists say that coronavirus may be causing.

Recovering fully from disaster takes time and resources that coronavirus is taking away, and that’s only lengthening and adding to the suffering that many of these survivors were already facing. The impacts of cobbled-together disaster response were clear to these communities before – and, as an effect of the pandemic, will likely be clear to the whole country now.

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