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.”

The Truth About Numbers

With the devastation that was brought to the region by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, it seems as though everyone has been scrambling to find statistics that accurately depict the damage that the community has endured. Statistical accuracies are proving quite elusive however, and the amount of numbers circulating about the region are enough to make one dizzy.

One can look to FEMA and the number of persons who have applied for aid as a reliable source of quantifiable data from the region. Eugene Brezany, spokesman for FEMA, confirmed that as of Oct. 11th, 2,238 applications have been received for Columbia County. Of those, 1,876 appear to be from renters or private property owners; the difference between the two figures would include business owners or those who were not eligible for aid. But even these statistics are not necessarily all encompassing as there may be others who have filed privately with their insurance and not with state or federal officials.

The numbers recently provided by the Red Cross for Columbia County were only a fraction of what was initially estimated in damages to private property. The updated estimates included 141 homes destroyed and 661 homes with major damage, 465 with minor damage, and 621 affected in some way for a total of 1,888 homes either damaged or destroyed by the flood. These figures were based on home to home assessments performed by Red Cross Damage Assessment teams.

The day after these revised statistics were printed in the Press Enterprise (paywall) newspaper, their headline news read “Official: Flood ousted 2,000+ families.” The article (by Peter Kendron, 10-5-11) cited Rich Kisner of the Columbia County Housing Authority as having estimated that this number of households “may have” been displaced. Furthermore, this appears to be based on Kisner’s analysis and interpretation of flood maps for the region.

When contacted by the Bloomsburg Daily for clarification, Kisner explained, “My comment is based solely on flood maps. There are 2000 homes in the 100 year [flood] zone and another 1000 in the 500 year [flood] zone. We believe that the water level, in most areas, reached at or near the 500 year zone. “ He went on to say that his estimates derived from the flood maps were indicative of the number of homes affected by the flood and that the numbers “do not mean that families are displaced.”

The number of families displaced by the flood is something considerably harder to pinpoint than the number of homes damaged or destroyed. Rita Inklovitch, executive director of the Bloomsburg Chapter of the Red Cross explained, “Bear in mind, that people displaced covers a lot of scenarios; temporarily or permanent displacement. Many people are displaced only while they clean up because of mold and other issues and may have minor damage.”

There may also be persons who are staying with friends or family and have so far escaped inclusion in a statistical analysis. Nonetheless, concrete data is being compiled by the day. In the end, the final tally of displaced is the one that matters the most – the number of people that lost their houses or were permanently relocated because of the flood.