While the West Side residents, community activists and elected officials were grateful that President Joe Biden signed a disaster declaration for Cook County, there was a widespread frustration that the process has taken this long.

In the interviews last week, Austinites said they didn’t necessarily blame FEMA itself – after all, they couldn’t do much until the disaster was declared. But there was a widespread feeling that the West Side simply wasn’t a priority for the federal decision-makers as residents continued to grapple with the fallout from July 2 floods. But now that the federal disaster has been declared, they want to make sure that the people who need the funds get them.

The scale of the frustration has been evident for a while. When the Northwest Austin Council held a community meeting four days after the flood for residents to share their concerns with Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago officials and Rep. Danny Davis (D-7), the meeting filled to capacity, leaving most of the crowd outside.

Steve Robinson, the organization’s executive director, said in a recent interview that since then, he continued getting complaints, and the complaints intensified after Biden declared a state of emergency in Maui within the days of the deadly fires.

“FEMA is taking care of Hawaii, and they just had a disaster, and they haven’t taken care of us on the West Side of Chicago,” he said.

Now that the disaster has been declared, Robinson said that he was relieved that the help finally came in August.

“It’s time to move forward, to make people whole again, and get some of their [home] mechanical systems and their losses taken care of, and bring some sense of trust in the government,” he said.

Leaders Network, a coalition of the West Side faith leaders, has been lobbying for the disaster declaration. David Cherry, the coalition’s co-chair, was even more forceful in a recent interview.

“I think it’s a good thing that Biden finally signed that declaration, it’s still the case – the unfortunate thing is that the West Side residents had to wait too long for the aid to come through. So while it’s a good thing that the declaration has finally been signed, it’s still abominable that it’s taken that long, and it’s still abominable that the West Side residents still had to fend for themselves for such a long period of time, and the lack of urgency shown toward Black West Side residents has been outrageous.”

Robinson lavished praise on Mitts, contrasting her with Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who represents most of South Austin and other parts of Austin west of Central Avenue.

“Ald. Emma Mitts is a stellar advocate,” he said. “She supports the people in the 37th ward and every other on the West Side. She’s the one who’s been spearheading it. My own alderman, Chris Taliaferro, I haven’t heard anything, but she has done a stellar job.”

Maricela Delgado, who lives in the 37th Ward portion of Austin and whose basement got flooded, had the opposite perspective.

“Most of the information [about the flooding] I’ve gotten from other aldermen,” she said.

Delgado said that she found out that ward offices were giving away cleaning supplies to get rid of mold and mildew from the 29th Ward Facebook page.

“By the time I called Mitts, all the cleaning supplies that were available were gone, “How did whoever got them find out [about it]?”

Mitts said that her office did outreach via e-blasts, phone calls, texting and walking door-to-door. She also said she worked with ward block clubs and churches.

“During this entire disaster recovery process, my public service office has served as a resource center,” Mitts said. “[We] held numerous information sessions and community meetings, both in my office and around the 37th Ward, and distributed free cleaning supplies to keep the local residents, businesses and organizational leaders engaged and informed.”

Taliaferro said his office sent out weekly updates, held “several” community meetings and handed out cleaning supplies.

“I wish I could’ve put money in people’s pockets, but there is a process,” he added. “I can’t see what else we’ve done to provide relief.”

Both Mitts and Taliaferro said that were relieved to see the declaration.

“I am relieved and extremely happy,” Mitts said. “I feel this pivotal moment is cause for civic celebration and deep appreciation to President Biden for this important Emergency Disaster Declaration for these West Side Chicago communities — which now releases much-needed federal relief funds.”

Application problems

Austin resident Roman Morrow and Delgado both said that they struggled to navigate the online application process, and that some questions were unclear. Morrow gave an example of a question about whether he was sick during the natural disaster, and he wasn’t sure whether it meant whether he was sick when the flood happened or whether he got sick afterwards due to mold.

At his mid-August 29th Ward community meeting, Taliaferro said that he personally had trouble navigating the online application – which is why his staff put up a link directly to the application page on the 29th Ward Facebook page and e-blast.  He and Mitts said that residents who struggle with applications can come to their local ward office to get help.

Now that the disaster declaration has been signed, Cherry said that Leaders Network intends to make sure the money gets to those in need.

“We have to stay vigilant [to ensure] that the people have to get the relief that they need, because they had to wait for far too long to get it,” he said.

Robinson agreed with Cheery, while also adding that the city and MWRD need to take flood prevention more seriously.

“We need to be able to mitigate this problem, by creating a system that would not allow [for flooding to happen],” he said. “Global warming, climate change, whatever you want to call it, it’s real.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...