Bayou City

Nearly a Quarter of Harvey FEMA Applications in Texas Are Being Denied

Porfirio Deleon and his daughter Mia, who is battling leukemia, are out of their home and were deemed ineligible for FEMA disaster assistance.
Porfirio Deleon and his daughter Mia, who is battling leukemia, are out of their home and were deemed ineligible for FEMA disaster assistance. Photo courtesy of Porfirio Deleon
After Porfirio Deleon’s house in southeast Houston flooded during Hurricane Harvey, he waited only a few days before applying for disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. His family of six couldn’t cram into his sister’s house forever, especially as his eight-year-old daughter continues chemotherapy for leukemia, which doctors discovered last year.

FEMA’s response came faster than he expected. Within about 72 hours, he received a notice that his application had been deemed ineligible because it “indicated the disaster caused no damage to your home,” the letter from the agency read.

Deleon showed the Houston Press this letter while standing in his gutted house that had been filled with almost four feet of water.

“I don’t know how it works. We’ve tried to get an explanation from FEMA a few times,” Deleon said. “It took us a while to get somebody on the phone, but we finally did. We never received a straightforward answer why.”

Deleon is one of thousands of residents still grappling with damaged homes and property who, at least for now, stand to receive little help from FEMA. More than 23 percent of all applications in Texas have been deemed ineligible, according to numbers from agency spokesman Kurt Pickering. FEMA officials stressed that ineligible applications are not always final and that people should reapply for assistance when noted, but residents interviewed by the Press expressed feeling snubbed despite significant damage to their homes or confusion over a lack of clarity from the agency.

“They’re really friendly and courteous; however, they’re just not resolving anything,” Deleon said about FEMA representatives.

As of last week, about 880,000 residents had applied for disaster assistance in Texas, with 337,000 homes approved for more than $1 billion, according to Pickering. But more than 210,000 were deemed ineligible, with as many as 500,000 still awaiting decisions. The New York Times reported last week that about 23 percent of all FEMA individual assistance applications were denied between hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma, with the majority of those denials in Florida.

Pickering explained that most applications are ineligible for one of a few reasons: insufficient damage, ownership and vacancy verification, and insurance. FEMA encourages all people, even those with flood insurance, to apply for assistance, but notes the agency cannot provide for damages covered by insurance.

That places people like Christine Stanley in a bind. She and her husband received a flood insurance settlement of $35,000 to cover the damage to their home in southeast Houston near Hobby Airport. An insurance adjuster told the couple that the flooding caused from $50,000 to $70,000 in damages, but FEMA ultimately deemed them ineligible because of the insurance payout. Stanley said they’re rebuilding the home bit by bit while staying with relatives and relying on help from their church and friends.

“Why should we not get assistance because we protected ourselves by having the flood insurance?” Abel-Graves said.

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Mixed messaging has led to confusion in other places. When a FEMA inspector visited Derrick Clinton’s flooded house in Cinco Ranch, the woman seemed confident Clinton would receive funds for the $15,000 he lost between his car and other possessions. A few weeks later, though, his application was denied because it was less than the minimum grant amount. Robinn Abel-Graves and her family in Porter were denied because they received flood insurance, although two FEMA workers surveying the neighborhood recently told her she should have not been denied and that she should appeal FEMA’s decision. Both Clinton and Abel-Graves plan on following up with appeals.

“Why should we not get assistance because we protected ourselves by having the flood insurance?” Abel-Graves said.

In interviews, FEMA officials are quick to stress that applicants are not denied, but are found “ineligible” because not all decisions are final. Many residents are encouraged to reapply, Pickering said, because insurance settlements may still be pending or because they need to address gaps in application information. After applying, residents receive letters explaining actions that can be taken if the amount of money granted is insufficient or the decision is “ineligible.” Applicants are also asked to apply for disaster loans, the low-interest loans offered by the Small Business Administration.

For those without insurance, even FEMA assistance may not be enough. The average payout during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was $8,000, according to FEMA data.

Deleon, who is currently living at his sister’s house along with 12 others, ultimately submitted an application for the SBA disaster loan and is still waiting to hear back from FEMA. After speaking with FEMA reps, he’s still confused why his application found he had no damage to his home. He knows of family members and neighbors who had similar destruction, received flood insurance and still received assistance from FEMA. For now, he is relying on assistance from nonprofits and church groups. After his story appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat, his hometown paper, a pastor in Georgia sent a team of workers to help gut his home. He said he’s been lucky to keep costs low for now.

He estimates, though, he’ll need at least $35,000 to fix the home and move his family back in. There is no timetable as to when that can happen, but with his daughter’s weakened immune system and the potential for mold in the home, he has to stay patient.

“Slowly and a little bit by little bit, we’re rebuilding,” he said.
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Joseph Fanelli is a reporting fellow at the Houston Press with an interest in education, crime and eccentric people everywhere.