Flood victims turn to FEMA for help

Monday, May 10, 2010 at 11:45pm

Erin Nevarez, dressed in blue jeans and an oversize brown T-shirt, stood shivering in the cold drizzle of early Monday afternoon, clutching a handful of green papers and trying to duck under the backyard-barbecue-style tent set up about 20 feet from a tan RV marked “FEMA” that has occupied the corner of a parking lot at the 100 Oaks Mall since Saturday, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived in Nashville, at this location, their first in Davidson County.

The feds only served about 60 people there between Saturday and Monday morning, according to Duane Tuttle, manager of this particular mobile disaster relief unit. But the numbers had picked up by early Monday afternoon.

As FEMA officials ushered flood victims representing a range of demographics into and out of the RV — to use the phone, bring order to the paperwork, and begin the general accounting for and processing of accumulated stuffs (and homes) to hopefully obtain a check that cannot total more than $29,900 — staffers with the Small Business Administration, which will loan up to $40,000 with low interest per person, held meetings in their cars with constituents. As one worker emerged from her silver Chevrolet, she cracked that her office had just opened up again and then winced at the rain.

According to figures released Monday afternoon, FEMA has registered some 18,000 residents in the 42 counties that have thus far received the dubious distinction of federal disaster area. The agency has inspected 4,400 homes, and about 14,000 people are still on the schedule. More than $28 million has already been approved for the effort. 

Tuttle said by mid-week, FEMA would have at least 12 of these mobile disaster relief units established across the state. They’re easy to move, and once the RVs reach their locations, the phone lines, laptops and workstations are whizzing within about 45 minutes.

‘The smell is unreal’

Nevarez’s 8-year-old son lost every one of his toys and most of his clothes when the floodwaters rose into the house they rent off of Bell Road near its intersection with Blue Hole Road, in south Nashville. She lost all of her jackets.

The two weren’t home when the water rushed in; Nevarez was at work and her son was staying with her parents. For that, they were luckier than many, she said. But when she rushed back to spring from the marooned kitchen her dogs — a German rottweiler and a Jack Russell-chihuahua mix — she found a mess like she’d never seen, so many of her things floating, brown floodwater the color of weak coffee sloshing at her legs.

Now her house is surrounded by yellow crime-scene tape and high-water marks etched in mud by water nobody really saw coming. She’s already found mold forming on some of the drywall inside. She’s not alone; Navarez said her neighborhood — where the flood was oddly discriminating, dousing her block and leaving the one a street over largely to be — “smells like death.”

“The water went away real quick, believe it or not,” she said. “The smell is unreal. I mean, you can smell it still. It’s real bad.”

Nevarez applied for a FEMA registration number online seven days ago. That made things a little easier when she showed up just after noon on Monday to see what kind of aid she might be eligible for. A FEMA worker sat with her for 20 minutes or so; by the time they were finished, Nevarez was hopeful.

“I need to get anything to help me right now,” she said. “I’m more concerned about getting my 8-year-old back together more than me, because I’m an adult — I can do it. He’s only 8. To see his bed gone, and out by the [road]side, that’s just heartbreaking.”

It’s important to remember, of course, that the federal agency will not just up and replace a house. The obligation ends at repairing houses to safe, livable conditions. Much of FEMA’s work is actually in providing rental assistance or temporary housing, as well as a small portion to cover personal property. The agency will also interface with your insurance company if you've made a claim, although fewer than 4,000 homeowners in Davidson County have flood insurance. 

Tuttle couldn’t say how long it might take for someone like Nevarez to get a FEMA check; the agency doesn’t just hand them out. There is the paperwork, the inspection, and the processing of it all before money might arrive. It could take a month. It could be less. In the not-so-distant past, we’ve seen it take longer.

“It’s not a long-term proposition,” Tuttle said. “Once the damage has been determined and your eligibility has been determined, then it’s not a long-term process after that.”

Nevarez, and the thousands of others who’ve lost something or everything, have little choice but to nod and wait. 

The disaster relief center is open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. For information about filing a claim with FEMA, click here or call 1-800-621-FEMA. 

4 Comments on this post:

By: dargent7 on 5/11/10 at 4:36

I filled out the FEMA form on the Internet on Sunday and received a call on Monday, an appt. on Tues. It can't get any quicker than that.

By: Yuushii on 5/11/10 at 8:18

We did the form on Saturday, got a call on Sunday and had the house inspected yesterday. Very fast process - definitely can't get any quicker as dargent says.

By: may not on 5/11/10 at 10:30

Previous comments seem to have an implied assumption that all those flooded have internet access to FEMA - quite the contrary... many don't even have phone - hardwired or cell - access.

100 Oaks seems a very odd location for FEMA to have opened its maiden help center. Bellevue Mall might have been a far better option. Better yet - Municipal Auditorium, where those whose cars were lost or who are otherwise without transportation could take a bus to the transit mall and where covered, indoor shelter would be available for those seeking help (rather than a modestly covered RV in an open parking lot).

Thoughtless assumptions hurt now. Seems "your" FEMA and "our" FEMA might have learned more from its failures after Katrina. They certainly should have hit the ground here with more than just one folksy RV trailer in an odd location.

By: Blanketnazi2 on 5/11/10 at 12:42

may not - if you haven't been downtown lately, it's a mess to get around. and perhaps there were issues putting it at the Bellevue Mall because of road closures and not wanting more traffic in an area that's trying to rebuild. Buses go to 100 Oaks so those without transportation can get there.