Demanding answers from FEMA

October 23, 2008 4:53:13 PM PDT
If you are not dealing with it, you probably know someone who is. Thousands of people in our area received damage to their homes during Hurricane Ike. Now, city and county officials are demanding answers from the federal government as to why more people are not being helped. ROAD TO RECOVERY: How you can help | Person locator | Important phone numbers | Assistance from FEMA | Filing a claim

Six weeks after Ike hit, a lot of people are struggling to get the help they need. Less than 10 percent of FEMA applications have actually been approved. It's a frustrating figure, considering a lot of people are still dealing with major damage to their homes.

Sammye Hughes holds a FEMA denial letter in her hands, wondering if she'll ever get the help she needs to repair a leaky roof and the altered foundation Hurricane Ike left behind.

"I'm, a retired school teacher," she said. "I retired on disability because I've had three massive heart attacks. I have no extra money."

Unable to afford home insurance, Hughes' only hope was FEMA aid, but the latest statistics aren't encouraging. Since Ike struck, FEMA has received more than 246,000 housing assistance applications. The agency deemed 116,000 ineligable and approved just under 23,000, a shocking 9 percent approval rate.

Mayor Bill White isn't happy.

"We're fighting hard every day in order to try to speed up the bureaucratic processes in D.C., " he said.

Thursday morning, Mayor White and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett organized a Hurricane Ike working group meeting to try to find out why so many people are being denied FEMA help.

"The people keep changing," said Judge Emmett. "You talk to one person from FEMA one week and another person the next week and another person the week after that."

FEMA's newly appointed local field director didn't have many answers.

"I just came two hours ago and that's because I had other duties before reporting here," said FEMA Field Director Philip Park. "The gentleman who was here has just departed. That's absolutely not true that there's a new FEMA guy every day. I'm here and I'm here for the long haul."

Officials hope a more permanent working relationship between local agencies and FEMA will speed up the recovery process and give people like Hughes the help they need.

"If FEMA doesn't help me, I'm going to be in a real bad position," she said.

Both local and federal officials do say this is a learning process and things are getting better. But they are frustrated, saying FEMA doesn't has a way to prioritize people who really need help. And if you have homeowners insurance, the best bet is to go through your insurance company and not FEMA, because if you go through FEMA, you'll likely be denied.

To contact FEMA, call 1-800-621-FEMA.

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