As Hurricane Dorian lumbers toward Florida, local residents are already starting to stock up on food, fuel, medical supplies and batteries. In a matter of days there will be no bread, water or milk on the grocery store shelves and long lines will form at the gas pumps. Some folks will choose to ride out the storm in their homes, while others will evacuate until the hurricane has passed. Even after the rain and winds have subsided, the clean up and rebuilding will take months. Occasional hurricanes are just one of the realities of living in Central Florida.
Two years ago, the Impact! Ministries‘ team learned another harsh reality of hurricanes whenHurricane Irma passed over the area – the impoverished are rarely able to properly prepare – or fully recover – from natural disasters. The lack of resources, disposable income and agencies willing to provide help make the effects of a hurricane even more severe for those living in systemic poverty. Many are at the mercy of landlords for getting damage fixed and most do not have transportation to agency centers that can offer financial assistance in the time of crisis. For weeks after Hurricane Irma the Impact! team spent our days patching roofs, clearing downed trees and taking people to area FEMA stations. We watched as the city ignored the most impoverished areas of Lakeland in order to restore power to the more affluent. For many folks in the area the hurricane was an inconvenience for a week. For the impoverished it was a life-changing event that many have not yet overcome.
When it comes to poverty and hurricanes, there are five realities to keep in mind:
1. Food Stamps are a limited resource.
SNAP – or what most people call “food stamps” – is a main source of financial income for impoverished families. With the assistance comes many rules and guidelines for the items SNAP can be used to purchase – which is basically non-prepared food only. This means that EBT cards cannot be used for batteries, flashlights, medical supplies, cleaning supplies or building materials. As a result, the items most needed for dealing with a hurricane are never acquired by the impoverished. Even after the storm has moved on, electricity is slow to be restored which means that EBT cards cannot be processed at grocery stores. While many restaurants are up and running within days of a major hurricane, SNAP guidelines will not allow the purchase of hot food or prepared meals (unless you are designated “homeless” by the U.S. Government). After Hurricane Irma the Impact! team discovered dozens of impoverished senior adults that had gone days without a meal. They found that their EBT cards would not work and they did not have the cash to afford local restaurant food.
2. No disposable income.
Those living in systemic poverty do not have a “rainy day fund” for cash purchases in the time of crisis. There is no way to set money aside or create a savings account for emergencies. Many live in fixed-income homes, going from paycheck-to-paycheck, wading through endless red tape to receive government assistance and experiencing the daily fear of food insecurity. When hurricanes are approaching, federal buildings are usually the first to close – which means those in the process of reapplying for SNAP (which must happen every 3 to 6 month) are delayed. Mail service is usually discontinued for several days which affects those waiting on government assistance checks. Because power is out EBT transfers for SNAP assistance doesn’t happen. As a result many living in poverty go without food, basic necessities or proper living conditions as a result of hurricanes and the lack of disposable income.
3. Lack of transportation.
When a hurricane strikes, public transportation is one of the first things to be shut down – and one of the last things to be restored. A large portion of those experiencing poverty have no vehicles and rely on public transportation each day to get around. When city buses are discontinued – even for a few days – it severely limits folks’ ability to get to supplies, shelter, friends or loved ones or to government assistance agencies after the storm. After Hurricane Irma cellular reception still existed – though spotty in some areas. However, the only way to power a dying cell phone battery was by using a car charger for an hour or so. Electricity was out in most places across the county. With no vehicle, the impoverished has no way of charging a cell phone or making a call in a time of emergency. One of the many services that Impact! Ministries provided after the storm was charging stations based out of our vehicles as we were taking folks to FEMA stations.
4. Agencies are slow to respond.
After a hurricane many city, county, state and federal agencies are slow to respond with clean up, supplies and assistance. In the hours following Hurricane Irma the Southern Baptist Convention’s SEND Relief trucks were the first to arrive with help and assistance. In contrast, it took almost a week for FEMA to get their people set up in the area and the Red Cross never showed. While slow disaster response is difficult on everyone that has made it through a weather-related crisis, it is especially tough for the impoverished. Basic necessities such as food, water, ice, fuel and medical supplies are hard to come by after a hurricane – but are even more difficult when you have no way to afford them. As stated above, when someone lives in systemic poverty there is no “rainy day” fund for such emergencies. Even when FEMA began taking applications for financial assistance after Irma, it was weeks to months before those finances were provided. In many cases the impoverished had already been evicted from their homes, were relying on friends, family or churches for basic food items or had left the city entirely in order to find better resources elsewhere.
5. Landlords take the money and run.
Shady landlords use hurricanes or other natural disasters to take advantage of the impoverished. Most landlords have more than enough insurance coverage to fix any wind damage caused by a hurricane. However, the deductible is based on 5% of the total value of the home. Shady landlords will apply for government assistance through FEMA and use that money to pay off the deductible on their insurance coverage. As this process is taking place the landlord will keep the tenants out of the home “until repairs can be made”. The tenants think they do not have to pay rent since they are not actually in the home. After 30-days this non-payment constitutes a breach of the rental contract and the landlord can thus rent the home to someone else – calling the repairs an “upgrade” and charging a higher rental rate than before the hurricane. The original renter has little legal recourse when this happens. After Hurricane Irma, Impact! Ministries came across several instances where shady landlords received FEMA money AND the insurance payout, but never made the repairs. As Hurricane Dorian continues heading toward Florida, many roofs in impoverished areas around Lakeland still have blue taros on them from Hurricane Irma damage.