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Hurricane Sally a 'major disaster' but no individual assistance coming without public's help

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal

Escambia County residents could face recovering from a near direct impact from a hurricane without federal help for individuals for the first time since the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1979.

Local officials warned Thursday afternoon that time was running out to make their case for individual federal assistance.

President Donald Trump issued a major disaster declaration in Florida from Hurricane Sally on Wednesday night, however, the declaration was only for public assistance, essentially money for local governments, and not individual assistance that would be paid directly to people impacted by the storm.

"We've checked every box we've always checked, and we've gotten a different response," state Sen. Doug Broxson said during a Thursday afternoon press conference. "That's very disappointing, and hopefully, we're gonna see something happen more robust next week." 

Individual assistance from FEMA allows for grants for temporary housing and home repairs. It also allows for low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover.

Hurricane Sally made landfall in Alabama in the early hours of Sept. 16, putting Pensacola and southwestern Escambia County in position to receive the strongest winds and storm surge from the storm.

Despite the well-documented damage from the storm in areas like Bristol Park, Warrington, Perdido Key and downtown Pensacola, federal officials aren't convinced the disaster was enough to warrant help for individuals.

Meanwhile, just a few miles away, Alabama residents have been granted individual assistance from FEMA, including in Mobile County, which was on the western end on the storm and faced less severe wind and rain from Sally.

Escambia and Santa Rosa counties have issued a call for residents to send in photos, addresses and stories of damage to the county as part of justifying FEMA individual assistance.

Escambia County Commission Chairman Steven Barry said Thursday the county had already received 250 responses from residents to the email set up for collecting photos at HurricaneSally@myescambia.com, but said more is needed.

"I don't think the impact of that can be overstated," Barry said.

Santa Rosa County Administrator Dan Schebler asked Santa Rosa County residents to report their damage at the county's website at SantaRosa.fl.gov.

Under the current declaration, Escambia County will get 75% of its costs related to Hurricane Sally repaid by the federal government, according to a release from FEMA.

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The declaration also unlocked federal funding for governments and nonprofits for "emergency protective measures" in Santa Rosa County along with Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty, Okaloosa, Walton and Washington counties.

Escambia County is eligible to receive funds for debris removal, emergency protective measures, roads and bridges, water control facilities, public buildings, public utilities, parks and other recreational facilities.

The other counties are only eligible for emergency protective measures at this point.

FEMA, in a press release, said damage teams are still conducting assessments and the declaration can be amended.

Officials Thursday said making the case for individual assistance was their top priority but said they needed the public's help to make the case.

"This is a different storm," Broxson said. "Frankly, I'm very disappointed with that. We checked all the boxes. And there's a narrative out there that it just was not a big enough storm to get the attention of the nation, that would appall them about what we saw last week."

Barry said he was disappointed in the result from FEMA as well and called on residents to send in their narratives and damage reports by Monday, so the county can forward them to FEMA to unlock individual assistance.

"I can't implore to the citizenry how important that aspect is," Barry said. "Having been in office for a little while now, and serving through the floods of 2014, the individual assistance part is what's going to put money in the citizens' household. That's where it's going to be direct financial assistance to our residents that have been damaged, that have been harmed."

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson said he spent time in Pensacola Village this week and said it's important to get federal aid to be able to provide residents with the ability to even just restock their freezers.

"They've spent their money now on that, and now they have nowhere else to go in the sense of the food that they lost," Robinson said. "So again, this is what we're probably going to need some assistance with those people, writing those stories, telling their stories."

Robinson said the hardship created by the storm is not something a FEMA official will see in a flyover or drive-by of an area, but it's something they need to know.

Barry said there was no official requirement to unlock the individual assistance, and instead is a subjective judgment by federal officials.

Metal roofing lays along a roadside in Pensacola, Fla., on Wednesday September 23, 2020 following Hurricane Sally hitting the area last week.

"That's scary," Barry said. "It scares me to hear that it's a subjective feel. Because the thought of our community not receiving that — you know, if John Doe makes an application to FEMA and is denied — that's one thing. If he doesn't have the opportunity to apply for that direct assistance, that's unfair. And we have had a tremendous loss, and that's unfair to our citizenry to not have the opportunity to apply."

Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley said Northwest Floridians are resilient, but that doesn't mean they don't need help.

"We have been talking about the way that we recover, and the way we are resilient," Gilley said. "We don't want that to be something that works against us."

Jim Little can be reached at jwlittle@pnj.com and 850-208-9827.