STUART · Tears running down her face, Maria Martinez points to the place in her mobile home where worms crawled out when she lifted the carpet soaked by Hurricane Frances. After leaving a FEMA center at the Stuart airport on Thursday, Martinez cried even harder.
Martinez, a Mexican immigrant who lives in the trailer with her husband and their 1- and 3-year-old daughters, has been trying to get help from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, since Frances battered her roof Sept. 4, and again after Jeanne struck three weeks later.
She has yet to receive a penny.
While many applicants barely touched by the hurricanes in Miami-Dade County have already received aid, some of the poorest, most desperate victims in hard-hit areas like Martin County are still waiting.
Through Friday, 8,444 applicants in Martin County had been approved for aid, less than the number from Miami-Dade who had been approved.
For people forced from their homes or left without electricity and phone service, the process of applying for and receiving aid can be exasperating.
In the days after both storms, many found it impossible to get through to FEMA's phone line. Even in places where FEMA has set up offices, applications must be done by phone.
Others say they didn't bother calling because they were intimidated by language barriers or believed false rumors that it was too late to apply or that FEMA grant money would have to be repaid.
Many victims in Stuart and Indiantown, a poor rural community in western Martin County, have received FEMA aid, but often it was for $500 to $600, not nearly enough to cover damage to their homes.
"We're not here to make people whole again," FEMA spokesman Ken Higginbotham said. "We're here to get them back on their feet and to get them in a safe, secure environment. Is it [the system] perfect? No. But we do the best we can."
He said victims also can seek aid from such agencies as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army to supplement what they receive from FEMA.
Though Martinez, 28, and her family have been living in the damp, two-bedroom trailer, a FEMA inspector has said it is unsafe because of storm damage and mold.
Several sections of the floor have nearly disintegrated from the water that streamed in during both storms. A refrigerator, a bed and the younger girl's crib were ruined. The wind from Frances destroyed the porch and broke three windows. The damage is worse inside than it appears from the outside.
"I didn't even want to ask for help," Martinez says, walking out of the trailer to get some fresh air. "I did it for my daughters. They shouldn't be in a place where the smell is so bad. It can't be good for them."
Martinez started calling FEMA a week after Frances struck on Sept. 4. She said an inspector visited on Sept. 27, about 16 days later. By then, the trailer had taken another hit from Jeanne, but the inspector told Martinez to file a separate application for damage from the second storm.
Increasingly frustrated, Martinez went to the makeshift FEMA office. Since she had already finished the application process, FEMA officials told her all she could do was wait. That set off a bout of tears.
Many victims complain that even within Martin County, some people are getting plenty of help while others aren't getting any. Martinez only needs to look to her sister Veronica as an example.
Veronica Martinez lives in a nearby trailer park lined with 8-foot-high piles of uncollected hurricane debris and garbage. Her trailer had damage similar to Maria's, though Veronica's home computer was also ruined.
Money for some
The sisters say they applied for FEMA aid at the same time. Veronica, however, has already received a check. She would not disclose the exact amount, but said it was for several thousand dollars. Under FEMA rules, Veronica could receive more if the inspector had taken into account the cost of replacement clothing and household goods.
In Indiantown, dozens of people have been cashing FEMA checks at the local Rines By-Rite Market, most for less than $600, according to supermarket employees.
Bunchan Ngaeth, 37, a basil farmer from Cambodia, wishes he were so lucky. After trying sporadically since Frances, he finally communicated with FEMA for the first time Wednesday. The home in Port St. Lucie where he lives with his wife, 8-month-old daughter, brother and mother suffered roof damage and is leaking.
He also needs help for his Indiantown farm, which brings in $300 to $700 a month. Ngaeth figures he lost a couple of months of crops because the storms destroyed the plastic roofs to his greenhouses. "All of the farmers here are having trouble," Ngaeth said, gesturing toward nearby herb farms owned by Southeast Asians. "Everyone was hit."
The FEMA official Ngaeth spoke with told him he could apply for aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency.
But that's a separate procedure.
Ian Katz can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4664.
For many, help's not on the way
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