As Florida enters its final week of a huge and sometimes troubled Hurricane Irma food relief program, the price tag has climbed to more than $1.3 billion — one of the largest food disaster programs in U.S. history.
In just four Central Florida counties — Orange, Seminole, Lake and Osceola — nearly 460,000 people have received disaster food stamps, known as D-SNAP, totaling nearly $153 million, paid for by federal taxpayers. That doesn't include the 285,000 people who normally receive benefits under SNAP, the federal Supplemental Food Assistance Program, who got nearly $49 million in additional benefits to replace food that spoiled during prolonged power outages.
To some, the program administered by the Florida Department of Children and Families has been an unparalleled success. To others, it is a mess that could put pressure on an already vulnerable food stamp budget.
"I have to say, after 24 years of doing this work, going through all kinds of disasters, I believe the state overall did one of the finest jobs that I've seen," said Dave Krepcho, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. "We know there was incredible need after the disaster hit. When you see people standing in line for six, seven hours — that, to me, says they're desperate."
By Nov. 1, more than 4.7 million Floridians had received benefits.
Although people were encouraged to pre-register online, the in-person application was required to prove residency and discourage fraud. But that also led to the hours-long wait times, hot tempers, snarled traffic and confusion.
At four South Florida sites, for instance, many of the tens of thousands of people who stood for hours in the heat were turned away empty-handed after officials shut down operations, citing health and safety concerns — namely, heat exhaustion and frayed nerves.
"DCF's failure to properly staff application sites has led to exceptionally long lines that have made it impossible for hundreds of thousands of Florida families to get the benefits they need," complained Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in a letter to the federal Department of Agriculture, seeking to extend the deadline for Floridians to apply for emergency food aid. "These families should not be punished for the state's failure to properly administer this program."
The department defended its work, noting it deployed more than 6,000 workers for the D-SNAP sign-ups, including nearly 1,500 temporary workers, and it made special accommodations for people with disabilities, hired traffic control and extended hours. It also added extra days to the South Florida sites to make up for the abrupt closures earlier. Though a department spokeswoman said the state's expenses haven't been tallied yet, they're expected to be considerable, and the federal government will only reimburse Florida for half.
"I'm proud of the effort our staff has made, with half of the agency contributing to this operation," said DCF Secretary Mike Carroll, though late Friday he announced he was asking the federal government to allow elderly and disabled residents in all affected counties to sign up by phone — without the in-person interview.
One reason for the long lines, the department said, was the mistaken notion that getting to the sites early increased the chance of qualifying for benefits.
In Orange County, for instance, on the first day of applications at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, department officials closed the line at 9 a.m. — two hours after it opened — because it snaked around the facility twice and went down a side street.
"People started lining up the night before, so by the time you get there at 5 a.m., you already have 10,000 people waiting for assistance. You can't recover from that," said David Ocasio, a spokesman for the department's central region. "We did 15,500 [applications] that day, so if we hadn't capped the line, we would have been there until the next day."
At every site, Ocasio said, wait times dropped as the days went by, both because the initial rush had passed and because the department adjusted traffic control and staffing. By the afternoon of Oct. 30, for instance, the wait at Camping World Stadium was a half-hour.
"We were in and out," said Jahaira Marin, a single mom raising three kids of her own and two for a relative. "I lost my job because of the storm [when her employer's business was damaged], and at home we lost power for five days. We are running out of money, but now at least we'll have food."
She and the children qualified for $913 in benefits — money that can only be spent on food in grocery stores and farmer's markets.