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Flood survivors waiting years for help from FEMA

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Posted at 1:38 PM, Mar 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 15:43:53-04

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — There is new blame on the federal government. This time for just how much time it takes to pay money to victims of natural disasters. Payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are running years behind. When the money does come, sometimes the cost of repairing a home or buying a new one, with inflation, has gone up so much that homeowners can’t afford repairs.

“It's kind of like Groundhog Day. You're stuck in this repetitive emotional mess,” said homeowner Terri Straka. “You're constantly on guard because you don't know. No one can tell you. Are you going to flood again?”

Straka’s home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina used to be her place of peace.

“I invested into this property. This is my heritage. This is where I've raised my children and my grandchildren now," she said.

That heritage was almost swept away by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and then, hurricane Florence in 2018.

“In 2018, it was twice as worse. There was over 4 feet of water and it sat there for several weeks. So, it was just it was disgusting,” said Straka.

She and her family lost everything inside their home twice. Straka made some repairs with her insurance money and immediate emergency money from FEMA.

“I only got half of what the damage actually was,” said Straka.

FEMA offers up to $30,000 to help storm victims repair their homes immediately.

Straka qualified for a long-term flood solution: a federal program to have FEMA pay to raise her house, so it was protected from future floods. That money still hasn’t arrived.

So, she and her neighbors looked into another long-term solution: a buyout from FEMA, which would help cover the costs of her buying a new house.

According to FEMA, buyouts take an average of 15 months, but families actually trying to get a buyout say it’s taking longer.

“It’s been three, three years. and essentially, we're just getting to the point as to where the assessments are to do the relocation program,” said Straka.

According to current laws, the buyout offer is based on the home value before the disaster hit.

For Straka, this would leave her family with nowhere to go.

“Property values have went up astronomically. With the 2018 pre-disaster assessment, I can’t manage with that. You give me that $100,000 or, or what have you, I can't go buy something even comparable,” said Straka.

In a statement responding to the slow assistance times, FEMA said, “Property owners are paid fair market value for their property.”

With no clear path forward, Straka found guidance in the nonprofit Anthropocene Alliance.

The Alliance connects the millions of families in flood-prone and other disaster areas across the country to help them navigate FEMA’s process when flooding or disaster happens.

In the future, more people than ever are going to need assistance. A study by Environmental Research Letters estimated that 41 million Americans are at risk for flood damage to their homes and may someday need buyout assistance, while FEMA only estimated 13 million Americans.

As climate change brings more intense flooding and storms, Stephen Eisenman of the Anthropocene Alliance believes FEMA is not keeping up with the times and needs to update its policies.

“I don't want to go and blame FEMA or the 'faceless bureaucracy' entirely because they do actually have to protect the interests of American taxpayers,” said Eisenman. “But nevertheless, there can be ways to streamline the process, and we're trying to help FEMA understand how best to do that.”

“There's going to be a lot of people that are depending on these measures to be done correctly and efficiently and properly,” said Straka.

Even though Straka is stuck waiting for answers today, she knows one day, her home will once again be her happy place, even if that home has to be somewhere else.

“I'm hopeful. That's the only thing I hang on to,” said Straka.

If you’d like more information on the Anthropocene Alliance and the help they provide, click HERE.