An Update on FEMA Funds and Mobile Homes

The Bloomsburg Daily had a chance to talk with Eugene Brezeny from the FEMA News Desk in Harrisburg this morning.  The goal was to get a status update on the amount of funds disbursed to Columbia County at this point, as well as to get an update on the status of FEMA mobile homes and when they might show up in the area.

In the statistics news, as of this morning (10/20/2011), FEMA has received 2329 disaster assistance applications from Columbia County for Tropical Storm Lee.  Of those, 1436 have been approved. Those approved applications represent $7 million in assistance to Columbia County.  According to Brezeny, that money is used for home repairs, rental assistance if a house is not fit to be lived in, and other needs that might not be covered by insurance.  To put this in perspective, at the statewide level, there have been 38,691 applications, and of those, 21,665 have been approved for a statewide total of $83.8 million in assistance for Tropical Storm Lee.  (Hurricane Irene is tracked separately and so far FEMA has provided $28.86 million in disaster assistance for those Pennsylvania victims, none of whom were in Columbia County.)

If you were turned down for FEMA assistance, it is important to remember that you can appeal that decision.  When you do that, you are essentially asking FEMA to review your case again.  An applicant’s first step in the appeals process is to explain in writing why you think the decision was incorrect.  You must include your name, date, and place of birth, address, FEMA application number, disaster number, and your signature.  The letter must be notarized, include a copy of a state issued ID card, or include the following statement: “I hereby declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct.”  Letters can be mailed to FEMA, National Processing Service Center, PO Box 10055, Hyattsville, MD 20782-7055, or faxed to 1-800-827-8112, Attn: FEMA.  More information is available in the FEMA applicant’s guide.

The FEMA mobile homes story is slightly less straightforward.  Mr. Brezeny stated that FEMA’s first priority is to get people back into their own homes.  If that can’t happen, FEMA provides rental assistance.  Thus, the first step is to quickly get the financial assistance to the area so people can repair their homes or find a suitable rental.  And even though FEMA is currently working with the state to coordinate rentals and make vacancy information readily available, he admitted that it is difficult in certain areas where there is not surplus housing.  At that point, he said, “We take it another step and plan for FEMA mobile homes.”  The only area that currently has a declared FEMA mobile home location is in Bradford County.  No other firm decisions have been made as of today.

However, he went on to say that “We know that time is ticking with cold weather upon us.”  He explained that FEMA was working on options for Columbia County, but finding a suitable location and working with local authorities takes a little time.  According to Brezeny, it takes 45-60 days to build out a FEMA park and that plans would be to start with a small number of units — probably around 15.  Other possibilities include working with a pre-existing commercial park, or simply placing mobile homes on a resident’s property.  But in that case, FEMA must work with local officials to ensure that those locations are not in the flood plain and allow for the mobile home placement under local regulations.  In addition, there needs to be access to utilities.

Brezeny understood that it was frustrating for victims who want some real details at this point, but he said “We are working vigorously to get everyone into the right housing. It just takes time.”

AGAPE Continuing to Help

One of the groups that has taken the lead with flood recovery efforts in Bloomsburg is AGAPE.  The organization is an on-going mission to serve people in need throughout the area.  In the days that have followed the flood, they have been a clearinghouse for donations and volunteers, providing cleaning supplies, clothes, meals, and just about anything else that victims have needed. And those needs are not going away, but they are changing on a daily and weekly basis.  To this point, over 3000 people have volunteered to help AGAPE in the flood recovery.  They have also been in 473 homes and have had out of state groups helping in their effort.

According to Eileen Chapman, the Executive Director, “People have been wonderful.”  She indicated that while volunteer projects had dwindled off lately, they are starting to gear up again. Assessment teams will be in Benton and Catawissa this weekend and volunteers will be needed to help in those independent assessments.  In addition, a few mud out projects remain.  And unfortunately, volunteers are needed to deal with a growing mold problem, a common issue after flooding.  Rainy, damp weather has not been helping in that regard.  Teams will be needed to help people with disinfecting and cleaning that mold.

Moving forward, Chapman feels that financial donations and volunteers will be the most important resources.  As the rebuilding begins, teams will be needed to do drywall and other construction projects.  According to Chapman though, “People shouldn’t rush to put drywall in.  If you put it up when it’s still too wet, you will have mold and you will waste a lot of money.”  She indicated that moisture meters are available for loan at AGAPE.  In addition, AGAPE is looking for a storefront so they can begin to distribute used furniture and appliances.

When asked how residents were coping, Chapman said, “People are coming into reality a little more.  Those who have lost everything were in shock.  They are beginning to come out of it and are trying to move forward.  They are also relieved that nothing seems to be getting any worse at this point.  But in the end, people are resilient.  They are reluctant to ask for help because so many are so much worse off than they are.  But they need to just ask for help.  We may not help that day, but they will definitely get a call that we are coming.”

To help AGAPE with financial donations, send checks to AGAPE, P.O. Box 424, Bloomsburg, PA 17815.  To schedule in-kind donation pick-ups or drop-offs, call 570.317.2210.  In addition, you can email AGAPE at info@AGAPElovefromabove.org.