Sunday, October 21, 2007
By Melanie Payne and Ryan Hiraki
Floridians who lived in low-income areas received, on average, twice as much disaster aid money as residents of wealthier areas after the 2004 hurricanes, an analysis shows.
Hundreds of residents questioned whether the more than $1 billion in household aid was distributed fairly after four storms raked the state.
Using data the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently provided to The News Journal and two other Gannett-owned Florida newspapers, the analysis showed that the agency provided more money to the people who needed it most — those living in low-income areas.
Still, critics and advocates for the poor contend that in the case of disaster aid, twice as much isn't enough.
"For folks who are generally well off, an extra $1,000 is a symbol of government concern and commitment," said Robert Asen, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty.
Low-income, struggling families who get a similar amount of money see it as a symbol too, Asen said. "But the symbol is exactly the opposite — that the government is not concerned about their interest."
The News Journal, Fort Myers News-Press and Florida Today in Brevard County sued the Department of Homeland Security to obtain from FEMA the addresses of where hurricane aid was distributed after the 2004 storms. The addresses were plotted on a map to correspond with U.S. Census data on race, ethnicity, income level and other demographic factors.
When all four hurricanes are taken into account — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — the numbers show an average payment of $1,301.85 to areas where the median income was more than $75,000 and payments on average of $2,693.72 to people living in areas where the median household income was below $25,000.
Mary-Margaret Walker, a FEMA spokeswoman, said income doesn't influence disaster aid eligibility.
"Disaster assistance is based on damage and the amount of insurance coverage that you have and whether or not you're eligible for a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. It's not comparable, you can't directly tie them together," she said.
Pensacola resident Laurel Keller, 46, lost everything in Hurricane Ivan.
A trailer where she lived on North M Street, and everything inside, was nearly destroyed.
Keller's home was located in an area where the median income is a little more than $22,000. Keller works only a seasonal job at the JW Renfro Pecan Company and had two children living with her when Ivan struck.
"I didn't have any insurance. I lost my whole home, everything I owned," she said. "Everything down to the socks and shoes we wore was destroyed."
Despite her loss, Keller said FEMA was quick to help.
Keller received $11,332 from FEMA that she used to put new drywall and a roof on a small gutted home located on property adjacent to her trailer. It isn't much, she said, but it's a place to live.
"I used the FEMA money to make a livable home for us," she said.
Jon Searcy, 57, lives about a block from Pensacola's North Hill Historic District, a section of town lined with large, historic homes. The median income in his area is about $52,500.
During Ivan his home sustained some roof damage and a fence on his property was demolished.
He received only $243 from FEMA to cover the cost of a chain saw.
"We got no assistance whatsoever for everything else," he said. "You hear about everybody getting something, and I certainly had expenses my insurance didn't cover, and there are things on my home that I still haven't gotten around to fixing."
In the analysis of FEMA data from Ivan, lower-income area residents' disaster aid payments averaged $2,245, compared to $2,149 for residents of high-income areas.
Richard Anderson, 62, a retired truck driver, lives in Navarre.
FEMA reimbursed Anderson $2,255 for a generator and chain saw he purchased after Ivan. Anderson's home is within walking distance from East Bay in a community with a median income of more than $46,000.
"I'm grateful for what they did for me," he said. "They were very helpful. Nobody expects the government really to help you out, but in this case I thought they were outstanding."
More is less
The attitude toward disaster assistance is different for wealthy people than it is for poor people and minorities, said Stephen Bradberry, the head organizer for Louisiana ACORN, an affordable housing group currently focused on housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Aid for wealthy people is seen as assistance, Bradberry said.
"For poor people it is looked at as a welfare system, and that impacts how they are dealt with when they come through the door."
When J.J. Chaney's power failed after Hurricane Charley, he bought a generator.
He had no idea that he might have been eligible to get the cost reimbursed by FEMA or that he might have qualified for a low-interest SBA loan for the East Fort Myers barber shop he owns.
"I can't blame it on them (FEMA). I didn't seek it out to see if it was available," he said. "But then no one came by and said, 'You need to apply for that,' either."
While Charley battered Evangeline Tolliver's Apache Street home in East Fort Myers, she huddled in a closet covered in blankets. The area Tolliver lives in has a median household income of $22,614 and 95 percent of the residents are black, according to the U.S. Census.
After the storm was over, her roof was torn off and the windows were blown out. She refused to register with FEMA.
"I didn't bother with FEMA," Tolliver said. "It wasn't pride. There were other people who had greater needs."
Tolliver also said she didn't want to disclose her personal information to FEMA.
The difference in the average aid between wealthier areas and poor areas does not mean that poor people made out better after the storms, Bradberry said. In fact, because the difference in the amounts is relatively small — $1,500 at most — it is an indication that the payments to low-income people were likely inadequate to meet post-disaster needs.
When a hurricane is coming, people with the means evacuate, Bradberry said. "They go to places by and large of their choice and where they have some degree of affordability," he said. "For them, assistance was more of a boon."
Poor people often are stuck to ride out a hurricane and look for shelter in the aftermath. The post-disaster costs are unpredictable and higher, Bradberry said.
For example, FEMA might put the disaster victims in a hotel, he said, where they can't cook or access a grocery store, and then have the expense of restaurant meals every night.
"Those kinds of factors aren't brought out in the numbers. ... You can't look at it and say, 'Poor people got more money,' " Bradberry said.
"People tend to look at it like it is all equal and it's not, not in any way, shape or form."
News Journal staff writer Kris Wernowsky and Brian Fuller, Web application programmer for The News-Press, contributed to this report.
The Pensacola News Journal
Copyright 2007 The Pensacola News Journal