NORTH PORT, Fl. — Two months after Hurricane Ian ravaged southwest Florida, the recovery is still just beginning for some, but rebuilding means navigating a complex system to find the right help.
“It has been a very long, drawn out, never-ending nightmare,” said Shannon Terry, a mother of two who lives in North Port, Florida.
The past two months have become a chapter Terry wants to forget.
“I have just been running on fumes," she said.
It’s been two months since we met Terry. She and her daughters had to swim across their street to escape their flooded house during the storm. They lost everything.
“When you're looking at your children, and they're asking, or they're sitting on a floor because we no longer have a sofa—that was floating in water—you're trying to find a positive light where you're like, ‘OK, let's make this a cute little slumber party out on the floor.’ But inside, you're like, 'Come on. I need some help. I didn't ask for this.' A lot of people didn't ask for this, you know,” said Terry.
For this family and so many others, it’s going to take a lot longer than two months for life to feel normal again. Normalcy is even tougher to find because the path to aid and help can feel like a disaster after the disaster.
“There's no help. No insurance is helping you. Rental property is not helping you. FEMA is not helping you. You're on your own, and that's how I have definitely been feeling throughout this whole entire process,” said Terry.
Terry’s home was flooded and unlivable. She applied for rental assistance from FEMA, but it was pending for weeks.
Terry was also denied assistance from her insurance because she didn’t have flood insurance.
Many people in her neighborhood didn’t. Some parts of this area aren’t in a FEMA-mapped flood zone, so flood insurance is not required.
“That question was asked: do we need flood insurance? ‘Nope. this is not a flood area.’ Well, apparently it is, and apparently, it was an extremely flooded area,” said Terry.
In the meantime, they bounced from hotels to the neighbor’s house and back to a hotel. Finally, she found a home to rent, just up the street from where her family was originally living. All the moving was adding up and replacing clothes and shoes added up.
One month later, there was still no rental assistance or reimbursement from FEMA.
“In your mind, you're thinking, ‘Okay, I did this step. This should be good. Okay, I follow this accordingly. This should be good.’ And when you're not hearing anything, or you're getting these emails from FEMA, ‘deny, deny, deny,’ you, you're taking on another level of, ‘Okay, I'm already in a nightmare, like, what is going on?” said Terry.
When Terry emotionally felt like she couldn’t take anymore, then came another roadblock. Possible fraud.
Someone she didn’t know filed a FEMA aid claim on her home.
“It was like the wind got knocked out of me,” said Terry.
The letter was addressed to someone else, and FEMA said that could be a factor as to why her aid was held up. With insurance, fraud, and people struggling to pay for replacements and repairs, we sat down with John Brogan of FEMA to understand what FEMA can and can’t do and how people should navigate the web of disaster relief.
“FEMA is just there to jumpstart that recovery,” said Brogan. “There's other options out there. Volunteer agencies, community organizations, insurance. There's other ways for them to make up that gap.”
Brogan said that sometimes aid is held up, but that doesn’t mean families should give up.
“We want to get it right. So, if you hear no, don't take that as a final answer,” said Brogan.
He hopes families realize that FEMA is not meant to cover all recovery expenses, but they work with a network of nonprofits and government agencies to help people get more of their expenses and needs met.
“So, it's not going to make you whole, but it's going to make it a safe, sanitary, secure place for that survivor to live,” said Brogan.
For those who don’t have insurance and have had aid delayed, like Terry, the hurricane has wiped out her savings.
“I've had to put a lot of things on hold because I'm wiped out. I'm tapped out,” said Terry. “I have nothing else to give myself. We have no furniture.”
After two months, Terry received money for rental assistance from FEMA, but waiting two months was agonizing—a wait she knows other families are experiencing, too.
“My question to FEMA is: where do you think some of these people are right now? What do you think they're doing? Where do you think they went? What do you think is going on with them?” said Terry. “You're our resource, but our resource has just basically left a lot of people just tapped out and it's unfair.”
FEMA said it has streamlined the road to recovery, and if you are still waiting on help, doing these things will speed up the aid process.
- Update your application. Tell FEMA when there has been a change in your situation.
- Visit a disaster recovery center. They can help you in person, immediately.
- Ask about nonprofits that can help with repairs, supplies, and clothing.
- Apply for a Small Business Administration loan. Homeowners and renters can qualify, and you might not have to pay it back.
The most important thing FEMA said is to be specific about what your family needs.
“There are a lot of misconceptions with FEMA, but we really, truly are here to serve,” said Brogan.
“My hope is just to just get what my children need. you know, that's it,” said Terry. "I don't know how Christmas is going to happen."
When Terry explained her worries for the holiday season, our team wanted to help. We reached out to Southwest Airlines to see if we could set up an account where the community could donate miles to get her and her family home for Christmas to Maryland. She said that's all her daughters were hoping for.
To our surprise, Southwest Airlines representative Brandy King wanted to do much more. We connected Terry and King via zoom to share the good news.
"We at Southwest, we've heard about everything that you've been going through, and we would love to reunite you and your girls with family in Baltimore this holiday season," said King.
"You're going to make me cry," said Terry, holding back tears.
"We would love to reunite you and your girls on a Southwest plane to Baltimore to see family this holiday," said King.
"I can't...There is not enough words to say thank you," said Terry. "I can't express how I feel, but there's no words to truly get you to understand how I feel."
This storm recovery has been so emotional and drawn out for so many families, and every moment of joy has become a blessing more needed than ever.