Across from Paul's Jewelry and a nail salon with neon signs, dozens of people are waiting in line to tell FEMA what they lost. It is, without a doubt, the most populated area of the ghost town that is Greenspoint Mall, the first FEMA assistance center to sprout up outside of the major shelters in Houston. People are fanning themselves with the FEMA letters they received in the mall, playing a slow game of musical chairs whenever officials call out the next three-digit number, moving the queue along just a few more inches.
Some have been denied assistance and want to know why. Others just want help with the rent. Many have lost everything, and, without flood insurance, their ability to put their lives back together rests largely on this trip to the row of FEMA representatives set up inside the mall.
Among those waiting was the LeBlanc family, whose matriarch, Martha Edwina LeBlanc, has lived in the same home in northeast Houston since 1966. Her home received more than four feet of water. The furniture, clothes and shoes, and worse, the old photographs and memories — all of it was gone, said her daughters, Nicole and Katheleen LeBlanc, who accompanied their elderly mom to the pop-up FEMA site. Nicole said that early estimates have pegged repairs at $20,000.
"We're gonna do it, because it's our family home and we want to save it," Nicole said. "But they should at least give her something in the meantime. They sent her this [offer] to stay in a hotel. But because she has my sister to live with, they can save that money and give it someplace else. They would be wasting money on hotels when she needs money to get the home fixed."
According to FEMA spokesman Bob Howard, more than 286,000 people in Harris County have applied for FEMA housing assistance, including those in need of temporary housing vouchers and in need of home repairs. More than 99,500 applications have been approved, Howard said, and more than $130 million has been paid upfront to assist them.
As of Monday morning, three FEMA assistance centers were open in Harris County — at Katy Mills Mall, Baytown Community Center and Greenspoint Mall.
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"We will never be able to bring people back to where they were prior to disaster — that's what insurance and loans are for," Howard said. "But our goal is to get people into a long-term safe and sanitary housing condition. Temporary housing assistance can come in many different ways: It can be either paying two months' rent for somebody, or, in some cases, for minor repairs so they can get back into their home immediately. We're looking at, for each individual, what's the best way to get them back to a safe and sanitary living condition."
The line for those in need of help is only likely to continue growing, as Howard said nearly 343,800 people in Harris County have called FEMA inquiring about assistance.
At Greenspoint Mall, several people on fixed incomes said they just needed some money for the rent in minimally damaged apartments, after exhausting much of their funds purchasing emergency food, water, new clothing and other items. One disabled woman, Sharon Smith, said that after her entire first floor flooded, she lost her bed and all her furniture — but also didn't know how she was supposed to pay the rent this month while putting her life back together without some immediate help. Another couple, Jose Delgado and Michelle Suniga, said they had moved to Houston just four months ago from Midland to stay with Delgado's sick parents and help out. They are neither renters nor homeowners, and had come to explain to FEMA that, still, they lost everything and hoped they would be eligible. They had brought their receipts from the motel they had been staying at.
"I've never known anything about FEMA — if they're here to help, I might as well [seek it] because I lost a lot of my things, things I can't go back home with," Suniga said. "Something's gotta happen."