FEMA foot patrol brings human touch to Hurricane Harvey relief

KIRBYVILLE, Texas (Reuters) - Eight days after Hurricane Harvey inundated this rural community in east Texas and volunteer firefighters in a boat rescued 73-year-old JoAnn Ervine and her three foster children, FEMA workers went looking for her.

FILE PHOTO: A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employee waits for the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump during a visit at FEMA headquarters in Washington, U.S., August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

They found her staying with a daughter down the road from the home in Kirbyville where she had lived for 53 years, and hoping to move into a trailer provided by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

On Monday, FEMA workers John Conti and Marilyn Torres made a second visit, helping expedite Ervine’s aid application. That came after Ervine last week waited four hours on the phone only to be told by a FEMA worker there was no information on the status of her request.

Roundly criticized for its clumsy response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, FEMA has deployed some 1,300 workers into cities and towns hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida. The doorstep strategy was drafted after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which had weakened when it made landfall in New Jersey but drove a massive storm surge that wreaked havoc on both New Jersey and New York. This year’s back-to-back hurricanes will be the biggest test so far of FEMA’s outreach.

FEMA is being stretched thin as it also deploys workers to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which barreled down on the Caribbean island about a week after Irma and has left most of the U.S. commonwealth’s 3.4 million residents without electricity.

Texas estimates that nearly 289,000 homes were damaged by Harvey’s winds and rain, including 15,500 that were destroyed.

“It made me feel more confident, that there was a possibility that they would help me,” said Ervine, a retired school cafeteria manager who has raised 29 foster children and four biological children. “I just thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to get a break - someone is talking to me personally.’”

Conti and Torres are part of a team of 17 workers assigned to help this rural community of 2,100. They advised Ervine to submit a contractor letter detailing the work needed on her home, which would make her application for a trailer more likely to succeed.

In Kirbyville, a former lumber town 134 miles (216 km) northeast of Houston, personal visits have made a difference for some. Up the road from Ervine, Gladys Buckley, 65, complained that FEMA deemed her claim ineligible for $3,500 to repair flooded floors.

She believed the denial was because of her house insurance policy, even though it does not cover flood damage. But Conti determined the real problem was that Buckley initially filled out a claim form stating damage was “unknown.”

He suggested she visit a nearby disaster center to correct the form and pointed her to other forms of assistance.

“People have been discouraged and think they don’t get the attention the larger places get,” said Beverly Burchett, who coordinated a shelter during Harvey in Kirbyville’s First Baptist Church. “I think (FEMA) has learned over time. I don’t remember them going out and visiting anyone before.”

After Hurricane Rita ripped through Kirbyville in 2005, Burchett recalls FEMA setting up a table for residents to come to them. Now FEMA workers are showing up on doorsteps and seeing the devastation themselves.

FEMA’s person-to-person connections are not only conducted by full-time government workers. Conti, 62, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel, with a year in Afghanistan under his belt, whom FEMA called in to help.

He estimates that his team has had 1,300 meetings with residents in the Kirbyville area since Harvey.

“We have to find them. It’s like scouts in the Army,” Conti said.

It is not a seamless operation, however. During a visit this week, FEMA’s iPads -- used to give residents’ applications immediate help -- lost internet connection, leaving Conti for a while with little to offer but sympathy.

Not everyone has received a visit yet, and in a small town they have noticed.

George Patrick’s auto supply and body shop business was swamped by 4 feet of water, destroying much of his inventory, floors and walls, ringing up some $100,000 in damage. Patrick, 77, applied for assistance soon after Harvey.

“I haven’t seen or heard from anybody,” Patrick said. “I’d like them to step forward.”

Reporting by Rod Nickel in Kirbyville, Texas; Editing by Leslie Adler