Texans wait for federal money after Dolly

July 29, 2008 2:58:31 AM PDT
For thousands in South Texas, Hurricane Dolly could turn out to be the worst sort of storm -- strong enough to rip away their roofs and flood their homes, but not devastating enough to draw an immediate aid offer of federal dollars. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials fanned out across the Rio Grande Valley this week to begin the process of deciding whether Dolly's damage is bad enough to merit direct assistance to help residents pay for temporary housing, home repairs and to replace some of their belongings.

While the White House made the federal disaster declaration that opened up the federal government's extensive resources for state and local governments last week, help for people like Noe Gonzalez, whose trailer is filled with floodwaters up to the beds, is still up in the air.

On Monday, Gonzalez, 64, sat in his white pickup truck at the edge of chest-deep floodwaters, keeping an eye on his deserted Edinburg neighborhood. His wife was staying with family, but Gonzalez and other men have been spending the nights guarding a perimeter from thieves he said were waiting to loot their homes.

"I hope that they help us, but if not it's in the hands of our Lord," Gonzalez said in Spanish.

Gonzalez is fortunate to have family in the area, but other families have turned to shelters or hotels while they wait for floodwaters to recede.

Dolly slammed into the South Texas coast as a Category 2 hurricane packing 100 mph winds on Wednesday, dumping more than a foot of rain in places. In many areas, like Gonzalez's neighborhood, floodwaters started rising Thursday, driving people from their homes.

Local officials think they will eventually receive the individual assistance. "It's going to come, we're just not there yet," said Tony Pena, Hidalgo County's emergency management coordinator.

For stronger hurricanes such as Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma, which all reached Category 5 strength in 2005, the offers of federal help for individuals all came the same day the storms made landfall in the U.S.

But for lesser storms, such as last year's Tropical Storm Erin, the disaster declaration that brought federal dollars to individuals came two months after the storm had passed.

FEMA spokeswoman Cheria Brown said the devastation was obvious for disasters that received immediate individual assistance. "It just depends on the severity of the disaster," Brown said.

Gov. Rick Perry requested federal assistance for individuals in his original disaster declaration, and FEMA said it would be considered after a preliminary damage assessment, said spokeswoman Krista Piferrer. Once FEMA and its state counterparts finish the assessment, Perry will likely repeat the request, Piferrer said.

Some of the factors FEMA considers include the number of homes destroyed or with major damage, the number of people displaced and the level of insurance for property owners in the disaster area.

"You have to have some data to support what you're asking for," Piferrer said. "We can't say for definite yet."

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