LA VILLA — A month to the day after a torrential rainstorm began to batter eastern Hidalgo County, causing millions of dollars in flood and wind damage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency opened a disaster recovery center here aimed at providing relief to local residents.
The DRC, located at the La Villa Youth Center, is the third such center FEMA has opened in recent weeks. Two others have been opened in Cameron and Willacy counties, which were also severely affected by last month’s 500-year storm.
“The individual assistance mission is to make sure that survivors have access to speedy recovery services that are available through the federal funding and programs,” said FEMA media relations specialist La-Tanga Hopes shortly after a news conference at the newly opened DRC last Wednesday morning.
Hopes said residents from surrounding communities are encouraged to visit whichever DRC is most convenient to them in order to get the disaster relief process started.
FEMA’s arrival came just days after President Donald Trump approved a federal disaster declaration for the three counties affected by the storm, paving the way for residents to apply for federal disaster relief dollars.
The center’s opening was welcome news for local leaders like Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez and Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes.
“We really thank Gov. Abbott and President Trump for declaring it a disaster,” Cortez said.
“This in an important process because (residents) can come and provide proof of that loss and FEMA hopefully will step in and help them out,” Fuentes said, adding that the agency has several avenues of assistance available.
Hopes said residents need not visit a DRC in person to apply for assistance; they can reach out online at DisasterAssistance.gov, or by calling (800)621-3362.
And FEMA representatives who visit residents at their homes will be easily identifiable, Hopes said, urging residents to be vigilant against fraudsters posing as disaster officials. FEMA representatives will wear clothes with the FEMA logo on it, as well as vests and name tags, she said.
She added that residents should feel safe seeking help, regardless of their citizenship status. “There is no penalty to walking through our doors federally. You can come in and tell us that you’ve been impacted by this,” Hopes said.
With two major flood events happening just one year apart, Hopes addressed concerns that residents may not qualify for federal assistance this year, saying FEMA staff evaluate things on a “case by case” basis.
Residents shouldn’t disqualify themselves before speaking with a FEMA representative, Hopes said. “Even if we are not able to help you as a federal agency, there may be other options available to you. So, yes, please do come,” she said.
Those other options include potential help from low interest loans via the Small Business Administration, or help from Voluntary Services in connecting with nonprofit organizations and other assistance.
“We’ll go ahead and we’ll reach out into the communities. And we’ll look for organizations and agencies where (residents) can connect and get their needs met right now,” said Debbie D. Ducommun, Voluntary Services Liaison during the news conference.
Residents and business owners can also reach out to the Small Business Administration for help, SBA public information officer Luis Santos said.
They, along with some non-profit organizations, and even renters, can apply for low interest federal disaster loans to help repair or replace storm damaged property, Santos said. Businesses can borrow up to $2 million, while homeowners can borrow up to $200,000, he said.
“And if you loss any personal property, like vehicles, TV, you may borrow up to $40,000,” Santos said.
Too, if businesses were forced to close shop because of the storm or its aftermath, economic injury disaster loans may also be available, Santos said.
But, the deadline to apply for the loans is Sept. 16.
Santos encouraged those interested in applying to log onto DisasterLoan.sba.gov/ela or to call (800)659-2955.
Free legal help is also available for those affected by last month’s storm thanks to partnerships with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, the State Bar of Texas and the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division.
The limited legal services can help residents with securing government benefits; life, medical and property insurance claims; the replacement of wills and other important legal documents; consumer protection issues related to price gouging or other scams; and provide counseling related to landlord-tenant problems in the aftermath of the storm, according a statement issued by the Texas Bar Association.
Those wishing to access the limited legal help can call toll free, (866)757-1570, or visit online at TexasLegalAnswers.com.
Though the La Villa DRC wasn’t set to open until 1 p.m. last Wednesday, several FEMA representatives could be seen assisting residents during and after the morning news conference.
One of them was Robert Cisneros, whose home in a low-lying Mercedes neighborhood has been severely damaged thrice now — first during Hurricane Dolly, then last June and again last month.
“My home was damaged and I lost everything,” Cisneros said. “That smell that’s in between the walls — I need to tear the walls down again. Part of the foundation cracked. It sunk.”
Cisneros, who lives in the home with his wife and their 13-year-old daughter, is disabled and suffers from dementia. This latest flood has proved not only frustrating, but confusing, as well, he said.
“I can’t sleep at night. My mind won’t shut off, thinking, how am I gonna do it? How am I gonna make ends meet?” Cisneros said.
Though this family received some assistance after last year’s flood, Cisneros showed up to La Villa hoping FEMA would help him pay for repairs this year.