Federal aid program for wildfire victims falls short

Federal aid program for wildfire victims falls short


05 March 2013

published by www.statesman.com

USA — Federal funds earmarked to help the neediest Bastrop County wildfire survivors rebuild their homes – a pot of $20 million – will help only 14 families from a pool of 210 applicants.

A total of less than $2 million in grants have been approved. An additional 21 applications are still under review, but it is clear the rebuilding program will fall far short of its goal of 150 homes.

By contrast, the local nonprofit Bastrop County Long Term Recovery Team, which works with private donors, grants and volunteers, will begin construction of its 50th home this weekend. The group’s president, Chris Files, calls the government-funded program a “colossal failure.”

There were 1,600 homes destroyed by the fires in 2011.

“This program will not make a significant impact on the recovery of this community, and that is unfortunate,” Files said.

She blames federal eligibility restrictions that she says were too narrow to help people in need. Meanwhile, the long-term recovery team has a waiting list of 45 families.

The federal housing program was aimed at uninsured or underinsured people with few resources, and nearly half of the applicants were ineligible because they had insurance or had already rebuilt before they applied. Even a loan from a family member counted against them.

Another stumbling block for some were federal requirements that called for those who received short-term aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to save their receipts for housing expenses. The FEMA money was to be used only for government-approved expenses, and any misspending of those dollars counted against people who tried to get the bigger housing grants.

Federal officials say all of the FEMA rules were made clear to applicants.

The federal housing program was designed for the poor, the neediest of the needy, said officials with the Texas General Land Office, which administers it.

“We understand it was a stressful situation for people, and they bought food and clothing with their FEMA money, but the rules only allow expenditures like rent and repairs to a home,” said Katy Sellers with the General Land Office’s disaster recovery program.

Files said people weren’t breaking the rules on purpose and many didn’t understand the guidelines.

“Some people had no choice. All they had was the clothes on their backs. They had to spend money on food, clothes and furniture,” Files said.

The wildfires on Labor Day weekend of 2011 charred 34,000 acres and killed two people as they swept through Bastrop County.

A majority of homeowners were insured, and more than $258 million in residential claims have been filed, according to the Texas Department of Insurance. That money fueled the bulk of the recovery, and many of the homes have been rebuilt.

In addition, FEMA dealt $11.6 million in housing assistance to wildfire survivors. Some homeowners sold their lots and left Bastrop County. Others, like the families still on the recovery team’s waiting list, are still living with relatives or friends, renting or staying in campers or FEMA trailers.

Officials at the state General Land Office were surprised by the low number of applicants for the $20 million housing fund, and extended the application deadline three times while workers went door-to-door, visiting churches and grocery stores to find more people.

There were maximum income levels based on family size, and applicants also needed to provide proof of home ownership, proof that they were paying their property taxes, and other documentation.

Mark Minick of Lutheran Social Services, which got a government contract of up to $800,000 to help people apply, said ownership of property issues were a snag for some. “Also, a number of folks bought manufactured homes as a replacement and this is considered established permanent housing, which meant there is no need for our program. And some were already working with the Bastrop Long Term Recovery Team,” he said.

Sellers said caseworkers tried to qualify families, even when some expenditures were iffy. “We had a family who bought a former drug house for $2,500 to live in. To us the condition of the house was that it was a temporary solution for the family, so it did not count against them, and they qualified,” she said.

James Kellam, who lost the home he built on five acres and wasn’t insured, is one of the few who qualified for a new home through the program administered by the General Land Office.

“I used my FEMA money for what it was meant,” he said. “I cleared my land of burned trees, installed new plumbing myself, put in a new septic system and started building my home but only got as far as putting up cinder block walls. I kept all my receipts.”

His new home could be complete by September; in the meantime he’s living in a FEMA trailer.

Funds left over from the $20 million housing program could go to other Bastrop County projects that qualify.

Mike Fisher, emergency management coordinator for Bastrop County, said he will ask for help with erosion control.

“We know about the money available,” he said. “But there is a lot of devil in the details when it comes to qualifying. For instance, the fires didn’t damage the roads, but the logging trucks and dump trucks used to pick up debris did. Would that qualify? I don’t know.”

A federal program to provide housing to uninsured, underinsured and poor people who lost their homes in the 2011 Bastrop wildfires received a total of 210 applicants from August 2012 through last week. Only 14 have been approved:

• 119 didn’t qualify. That includes 53 who had purchased or rebuilt a home on their own, 21 who were deemed to have received too much aid from insurance or other government sources, and 14 who exceeded income limits.

• 56 withdrew their applications.

• 14 were approved

• 21 applications still under review


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