18 months after natural disaster, many still wait for assistance

This satellite image taken Friday, Oct. 2, 2015 at 12:45 p.m. EDT, and released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows Hurricane Joaquin, bottom center, pounding the Bahamas and a deepening low pressure system on the U.S. east coast. Millions along the east coast breathed a little easier Friday after forecasters said Hurricane Joaquin would probably veer out to sea instead of joining up with a drenching rainstorm that is bringing severe flooding to parts of the Atlantic Seaboard. (NOAA via AP)

LONGS, SC (WBTW) – When it comes to getting help to recover after a natural disaster, most people will need to rely on insurance or even assistance from family and community organizations.

Financial assistance from the government usually only helps the poorest of the poor, and that assistance often takes two years or more.

Cynthia McRae and her mother Patricia are two people still waiting and hoping for some housing assistance after the October 2015 heaving rain and flooding.

“I have molding inside, and I have leaks,” Cynthia McRae said.

Both women had water leak into their homes in the Longs area during the downpours.

“I can’t even describe it myself, but I’m just ready to get back in my house,” the elder McRae said. “I’m used to staying by myself anyway. So I’m ready to get back in it.”

While the McRaes got some FEMA aid immediately, they are still waiting for money to fully remodel or replace their homes – money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“I just don’t know what to do,” Cynthia McRae said.

U.S. Congressman Tom Rice who represents South Carolina’s 7th District says he believes some changes can be made to improve the process and speed up the HUD assistance timeline.

“You basically recreate, or create, a whole new plan every time a disaster happens, and it’s too subjective,” Rice said. “It needs to be a more objective standard for what the role of the federal government is in disaster recovery.”

Rice thinks the process to award HUD money would be quicker if that federal role were already defined before any disaster. Currently there are lots of steps, including assessing the needs on the ground, writing laws to spell out how money will be allocated and then having Congress vote on it. Once there is a plan, people can then apply for aid.

“I’d say the process took maybe two months, within itself – the qualifications,” said Dyesheikia June.

She lives in Kingstree and is one of about 230 people who have made it through the HUD assistance process since October 2015. She got a new mobile home this spring – about a year and a half after the 2015 flooding that caused water leaks throughout her aging mobile home.

About 1,800 South Carolinians have qualified for HUD assistance and are still waiting to have their homes replaced or renovated after the 2015 rain and flooding.

“It would probably take me a white board and four hours to explain how complex this idea is,” said J.R. Sanderson when referring to the process of securing and allocating HUD disaster recovery funds. “We have been in discussions with a lot of people who are looking at a lot of different ways to shorten [the timeline],” J.R. Sanderson with the SC Disaster Recovery Office said.

Sanderson is the Program Management Director in the S.C. Disaster Recovery Office.  He feels aid may get to people more quickly if FEMA shifts away from providing aid directly to people in the field and instead grants more money to states to do that.

“So FEMA would maybe in the future show up on the battlefield and say okay we see what your citizen looks like right now, here’s your initial grant and here’s a subsequent grant so you can help your citizens,” Sanderson explained.

As for that HUD assistance process that follows, Rice says he has helped submit testimony to the U.S. House subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development, and they are working on shortening the timeline. He believes the process should take less time, but he and Sanderson also say some time is needed to be sure the financial assistance is handled responsibly.

“You don’t just take the money and throw it out the helicopter right. You have to have a plan to make sure the money goes to where it is best utilized and to the people who truly need it,” Rice said.

Sanderson said despite the current bureaucracy in the process, South Carolina has moved much more quickly within the system than is normally expected. June’s case is evidence of that because aid after previous natural disasters across the country often took two years to begin reaching the people who needed it. While assistance has still taken more than a year, her advice to anyone ever where she was is to not give up.

“I definitely stayed hands-on, continued to call, checked on my application, checked on the process, made sure all my paperwork was done, and those are steps you can pretty much take get the process moving,” June said. “Stay on task. Make sure they get everything that needs to be done, done on time.”

The HUD assistance process following Hurricane Matthew is now underway. South Carolina’s period to determine eligibility for assistance begins in August – 10 months after the hurricane hit the Carolinas.