Nearly a month after President Joe Biden declared Cook County a disaster area—freeing up aid funds to address the consequences of July 2 flooding in Chicago and the suburbs — questions linger about how much of that money is reaching Austin.
According to FEMA spokesperson Leyla Gulen, as of Sept. 16, the agency distributed $125.9 million in relief funds. About a third of it went to Austin and other West Side communities.
And Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said during a community meeting this month that none of the constituents he talked to have received as much money as they needed. Northwest Austin Council President Steve Robinson told Austin Weekly News that while early on he heard from many residents who were able to get FEMA funding, he has seen an increasing number of residents getting rejected for grants and steered toward loans. He added that heard from many people who applied but ran into problems with applications and inconsistent directions about necessary documents.
“Many people are trying to appeal what they have received, because it wasn’t enough or it wasn’t anywhere, you know, what they think they should have received,” he said.
However, Gulen said that its funding is not meant to replace all of an individuals’ losses, and that the agency recommends that affected residents apply for other programs. She also said that funding is still available, and urged anyone who hasn’t applied yet to do so before the Oct. 16 deadline.
In the month since the disaster declaration was issued, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave out millions of dollars in aid to those affected by the July 2 floods on Chicago West Side and the suburbs.
FEMA tracks the city numbers based on wards rather than communities. Austin is split between portions of 28th, 29th and 37th wards, and includes a small sliver of the 24th Ward. Gulen said that the four West Side wards received $37.8 million overall. More than $19 million of that went to 37th Ward, which includes central and north Austin east of Central Avenue, as well as parts of South Austin. More than $7.1 million was distributed in the 29th Ward, which includes parts of Austin west of Central Avenue and parts of South Austin. The 28th Ward, which includes about a third of South Austin, all of West Garfield Park and half of East Garfield Park, also received more than $7.3 million. 24th Ward, which mostly falls within North Lawndale and includes a portion of Austin’s southeast corner, got more than $4.3 million.
According to the agency fact sheet provided to the media, as of Sept. 11, $93.7 million of the aid for the city and the suburbs went toward rental assistance and home repairs, and about $15.3 million went toward the applicants’ medical expenses and replacing personal items lost in the flood.
Overall, 3,400 people applied for aid in Disaster Recovery Centers set up in the city and the suburbs, and FEMA outreach teams knocked on doors of more than 40,000 homes, while registering more than 900 households.
“We are still going door-to-door in all impacted communities to reach survivors who may not be able to make it to a [Disaster Recovery Center],” Gulen said.
While many parts of the Chicago area were flooded, Austin, as well as suburban Cicero and Berwyn, bore the brunt of it. The fact that it took more than a month for the federal government to issue the disaster declaration compounded the frustration.
FEMA federal coordinating officer Andrew Friend described the assistance delivered so far as an “important milestone,” adding that “we know there’s still work to be done” before the Oct. 16 application deadline.
“We’ll be here as long as it takes to ensure our programs are available, accessible and beneficial to survivors across the impacted areas as they repair and rebuild from this disaster,” he said.
During his Sept. 13 community meeting, Taliaferro said that several residents complained that the aid they did get wasn’t enough to address the flood damage.
“The average [cost of the damage] can easily reach the mark of $10,000, and that’s on the low end,” he said. “I talked to folks who had $20,000 [in damages]. I don’t think I’ve met or heard from anyone who’s gotten more than $2,000 [rom FEMA].”
Taliaferro said, while it isn’t FEMA’s job to “rescue” Austin residents affected by flooding, “FEMA isn’t coming to the rescue the way it should have.”
Gulen told Austin Weekly news that FEMA never set out to cover the full costs.
“One thing everyone needs to understand is that FEMA is just one piece of the recovery process,” she said. “The assistance we provide is designed to help jumpstart a survivor’s recovery efforts and ensure their home is livable after a disaster.”
Gulen added that the funding “is not likely to cover the full costs of returning the home or property to the condition it was in prior to the disaster.”
When it comes to funding the applicants do get from FEMA, she said, “each survivor’s case is different, based on the level of damage they experienced as a result of the storms and flooding.” The agency has an appeal process for those who believe that they haven’t gotten as much money as they should have. An appeal form is available on the FEMA website, by phone or at the recovery center.
FEMA also is recommending that flood victims reach out to U.S. Small Business Administration, which offers low-interest loans. Homeowners can borrow up to $500,000 to repair or replace their home. Renters and homeowners can also borrow up disaster may borrow up to $100,000 to replace the personal belongings, such as clothing and furniture. According to FEMA, applicants in the Chicago area and suburban Cook County received around $16.5 million in SBA loans as of Sept. 11.
Taliaferro will be holding an informational session on the ins and outs of SBA loans 5 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Columbus Park fieldhouse, 500 S. Central Ave. State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8) and the Westside Health Authority’s Good Neighbors Campaign will be hosting more general FEMA outreach event earlier that day at 1 p.m. at 5437 W. Division St.
The hotline to appeal FEMA decisions is 1-800-621-3362.
Correction: The original article misstated the amount of money applicants got through SBA loans as of Sept 11. It was $16.5 million, not $125 million. Austin Weekly News regrets the error.