President Joe Biden and a contingent of federal, state, and local officials toured flood-ravaged sections of Queens earlier this month in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Ida, promising speedy relief to homeowners and renters. Impacted residents were told about the $32,000 maximum payout they could expect to receive to help them recover.
But two weeks later, many are realizing it's far less simple than they were promised.
Officials are now telling residents that funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency aren’t intended to cover all of the damage caused by Ida. Instead many residents are being directed to apply for low-interest loans they’ll eventually have to repay through the U.S. Small Business Administration to defray any costs FEMA won’t cover.
“What the f--k?” said Erika Kasouto, 41, when she was told to apply for a federal loan in one of several calls to FEMA agents. The Woodside home she lives in with her parents took in five feet of water on the ground level. “It’s ridiculous. It’s disheartening.”
Despite assurances from elected officials in the immediate aftermath of the flooding, FEMA representatives have since tried to clarify on their hotline, through email, and at the city’s disaster service centers set up after Ida that grant funding is only intended to cover the essential costs of someone staying in their damaged home.
Several residents from hard-hit areas like Woodside, East Elmhurst, and Hollis told WNYC/Gothamist about similar correspondence with FEMA. And federal officials confirmed as much, adding that homeowners would likely qualify for the maximum $32,000 payout if their home was destroyed. People can qualify for a loan and still receive a FEMA grant, officials said.
Two weeks after the remnants of Hurricane Ida tore through the city, killing 13 people, basements across the city are still drying out as many New Yorkers struggle to recover from the punishing storm.
With millions of dollars in federal assistance now unlocked for the city, some households that saw rivers of rain and sewage pour in will have a lifeline to begin repairing and rebuilding.
But that help isn’t for everyone.
Left out of Federal Emergency Management Agency aid are undocumented immigrants — many of whom live in the Queens neighborhoods that were pummeled hardest.
“I’ve lived in this country for four years and this is the first time I’ve lived in a basement. I was looking for affordable housing,” Marlén Romero, a 32-year-old Corona resident, told THE CITY in Spanish.
Her home and belongings were drenched as Ida dumped more than seven inches of rain in an hour on parts of the city, flooding her apartment with about two feet of water.
“I had no idea that living in a basement would be so dangerous,” she said.
A native of Mexico, Romero and her husband are both undocumented, which would shut them out of federal disaster assistance. But her family may still qualify for assistance because the couple’s 4-year-old daughter is a U.S. citizen.
“It’s not fair for all of us who are undocumented who don’t have someone ‘legal’ in their households. We live in basements so we can save some money because rent in this city is so expensive. Our income doesn’t stretch that far to get a better home,” she said.
She only learned that there was financial aid available for flooding victims through a local community group, Familias Unidas, when a school social worker mentioned it as her daughter began preschool earlier this week.