WESLACO, RGV – The percentage of Rio Grande Valley residents that received disaster assistance from FEMA in the aftermath of 2008’s Hurricane Dolly was much lower than the national average for hurricanes, RGV Equal Voice Network reports.
Michael Seifert, network weaver for RGV Equal Voice, announced the statistics at a board meeting of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council on Wednesday.
“I ask for your support in trying to fix the mess with FEMA. We’re tired of suing. We would like to go to the federal level to try to get the rules fixed,” Seifert told LRGVDC.
Seifert said research into the amount of disaster assistance FEMA provides had been conducted by RGV Equal Voice Network’s housing working group and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA).
“FEMA does not contest what we allege,” Seifert said. “In 2008 after Hurricane Dolly, 40,000 Valley residents applied to FEMA for disaster assistance. Fifty percent, roughly, were denied. Nationwide in these events, six percent are denied so there is something weird going on.”
Seifert told LRGVDC’s board that TRLA and RGV Equal Voice “have done all types of investigation.” He said they had discovered “systemic issues.”
Seifert said: “Typically they (FEMA agents) go out to a house, a roof gets blown off, they look at it, and then a couple of weeks later they send in a denial. Or they say, we will send you $300. What is that about? You will never know because the appeals process is so weird and it stays within FEMA.”
Seifert gave his remarks to LRGVDC board members the day before the 2017 hurricane season started. He said FEMA’s own audits find 24 percent of errors.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Hurricane Dolly started out as a tropical storm and made landfall on the Yucatán Peninsula near Cancún early on July 21, 2008. It left at least 17 people dead in Guatemala, and one person in the Yucatán. It moved into the Gulf of Mexico and strengthened to become a Category 2 hurricane, before weakening some and making landfall as a Category 1 storm on July 23 in South Padre Island, Texas, with 85 mph winds.
Seifert said in the case of RGV residents impacted by Hurricane Dolly, 2,100 appealed FEMA’s decision and 11 got decisions in their favor to change the amount of compensation awarded.
“The most vulnerable people in our area get hit in terms of disasters,” Seifert said. “When something like this is set up to help those people and they get denied, eight times more than any other place in the country, that is something that needs attention.”
Seifert asked LRGVDC’s board of directors to pass a resolution supporting RGV Equal Voice’s efforts to work with Valley members of Congress to get FEMA’s rules changed. LRGVDC President Tony Martinez thanked Seifert and RGV Equal Voice’s housing working group for the research it had done on FEM disaster assistance.
Interviewed later by the Rio Grande Guardian, Seifert said: “Our housing working group discovered that the residents of the RGV have really been treated unfairly by FEMA. For example, there were 38,730 South Texas residents who applied for disaster assistance. Sixty one percent were inspected and 50 percent were denied. So, half the people that suffered hurricane damage and went to FEMA for assistance were denied. That compares with six percent anywhere else in the rest of the country.”
Seifert said RGV Equal Voice’s investigations found “FEMA is working inside a bubble.” He explained: “If they come up to my house and find half the roof has been blown off, they say, we will give you 200 bucks or 200,000 bucks. There is no way of knowing where that number came from. If I say, you are only giving me $200 and the damages are $2,500, the appeal stays within FEMA. They deny it or they don’t. There is no way to go after that.”
Asked what resolution RGV Equal Voice asked LRGVDC to pass, Seifert said: “A resolution saying we can take this to our congressional representatives and ask them to kick it up to the next level. Support for us working with our congressional representatives to see if we can change the rules by which FEMA works.”
Seifert said such a resolution is “particularly appropriate” considering Hurricane Season 2017 is just starting. He said RGV Equal Voice has a recommendation for Valley residents this Hurricane Season.
“We encourage everyone to take their cell phones and take photographs of their homes, their property, inside and out so you have a record of your home before we get a hurricane. We encourage this because they (FEMA) will say, well, your home was a mess before we helped you. It is sad to have to do that but until the rules are changed that is all we can do.”
Seifert said the “classic trick” FEMA plays is, “well, this home was really in a bad condition beforehand, we are not going to bring it back up to par.”
Another problem with FEMA, Seifert said is that the agency’s inspectors do not have any training. “They come from outside the area and they do not know what they are doing. They just have to pass a background check. We want to change this.”
Seifert added: “The great thing about Equal Voice is we are one of 14 networks across the country. We have partners in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia who have similarly vulnerable communities. We are hoping to combine our congressional work with them.”