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FEMA refusal upsets S. Florida

Hurricane victims there are struggling with the agency's decision to not give them money for repairs or relocation.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published September 3, 2005


DAVIE - On Friday - after more than a week without air conditioning or a living room - Maria Ibanez shook her head as she stood in her kitchen, under a ceiling cracked by a fallen tree.

In other years, after other storms, Ibanez and her husband could have asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help. Previously, FEMA gave individuals up to $26,500 to help with repairs, cleaning and moving.

Not this year.

Wednesday, FEMA told Ibanez - and hundreds of other Katrina victims in South Florida - that they aren't giving individuals there money for repairs or relocation.

"They said this is not a disaster zone," she said, in Spanish.

The big tree crashed into Ibanez's mobile home, located in Palma Nova, a quiet park in western Broward County. What was once Ibanez's living room is now a tiled, outdoor patio, a place for her kids to park their bikes. Bookcases that held family photos are soggy mounds of chipboard. A green couch is a stinking sponge.

Ibanez and her family don't know what to do. They are Argentinean immigrants - she ran day care from her home and her husband is a store cleaner at Target - and like many who sustained damage during the storm, they are too poor to afford insurance. Renting an apartment for their family of seven is out of the question.

FEMA officials said that local and state governments, along with volunteer and charity groups, have the capability of helping people like Ibanez in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties. South Florida officials disagree and are livid.

They can give families a meal or two, but say they are incapable of providing semipermanent housing or financial aid.

"We're not geared for the long term," said Don DiPetrillo, Davie's fire chief and emergency management coordinator. FEMA generally uses a complex formula to determine when aid is distributed, based on the number of homes damaged and the extent of the damages. In South Florida after Katrina, even the number of homes destroyed or damaged is difficult to get a handle on; FEMA officials said only 20 homes in Broward were damaged. Broward officials said there were 137.

In Miami-Dade - where floodwaters 3 feet high swept through Homestead - officials determined 184 homes sustained major damage, five were destroyed and 229 had minor problems. FEMA said that 152 homes in that county were damaged or severely damaged.

Gov. Bush said he has tried unsuccessfully to convince FEMA to give the individual assistance money. He hopes the state's congressional delegates will continue the effort. During a news conference this week, Bush said FEMA is using a threshold of 800 severely damaged homes statewide as a guideline on whether to give the individual assistance. Officials in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have appealed FEMA's decision. "I'm disappointed because I saw the damage firsthand and I thought it was pretty significant," Bush said.

FEMA has told local officials it will help reimburse counties for repairs of roads, schools, streetlights - public infrastructure that was damaged by Katrina.

Some officials in South Florida suspect that FEMA is unfairly penalizing South Florida because of several problems last year, including 14 Miami-Dade residents who filed false claims after last year's Hurricane Frances. FEMA officials say that isn't so.

Times Staff Writer Joni James contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at 727-893-8612 or at lush@sptimes.com