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Eastern Kentucky mutual aid groups try to fill FEMA gaps

Justin Hicks
Ohio Valley ReSource

At the Disaster Recovery Center in Hazard, people are trickling in. A few are applying for a replacement driver’s license, some for Walmart cards handed out by the Red Cross. But most eastern Kentucky residents are here to apply for FEMA individual assistance.

One of them is Herschel Dixon. He strides in with a ream of documents under his arm. It’s supporting evidence for his 87-year-old mother’s FEMA application. Her home was destroyed in the flooding.

“Here’s what I’ve got: A deed to the house, show them she’s paid taxes on the house and everything. So I’m coming in today to verify that and to give this information to them,” Dixon said.

Gov. Andy Beshear has touted the setting up of seven disaster recovery centers as a “huge deal.”

“Now the people on the ground, that you can go in to look eye-to-eye with, have the ability to approve claims. If you’ve got a denial email, go to the disaster recovery center,” Beshear said in a weekly press conference.

Dixon is one of many hoping to try and improve his mother’s chances by seeing a FEMA official face-to-face. But Murray Cohen, one of the FEMA officials on the ground in the area, said it wasn’t that straightforward. He said officials on the ground have no control over approvals and denials.

“FEMA needs to be doing better with its messaging, because even if you get the perfect documentation in place, even if you have everything right, and you’ve done it by the book, there’s still a possibility of getting it denied. And that’s not really in our hands,” Cohen said.

Residents have described the process as exhausting, in part, because they don’t know if they’ll get anything or when they’ll hear back.

Why community-based mutual aid and nonprofit groups matter

Survivors have shown up to CANE Kitchen in Whitesburg, Ky., for one of two things: a hot meal or a check for $250 to $500. The checks were supposed to arrive at 1 p.m., but volunteers are 2.5 hours late.

For some, the journey was long — they lost their vehicle to the flood and hitched a ride to get there. But Valerie Horn, a volunteer at CANE Kitchen, is managing expectations.

“I’m sorry it’s late, but I can drive you back home!” she said to one family.

The money is from the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky (FAKY), a local mutual aid nonprofit organization. To get the money, residents complete one basic form.

FAKY manages philanthropic donations and distributes them to people and groups throughout eastern Kentucky.

“This is the first dollar I think that most people have seen. Anybody can sign up for this. We need to look out for brightness and hope in these times. Any way we can lessen their grief, we try to do,” Horn said.

It’s not out of the ordinary in eastern Kentucky, and there’s no catch to this money. FAKY, like many other mutual aid groups and nonprofits in the region, have built trust with communities over many years.

Just over 8,000 people have applied for FAKY assistance to date, and the organization says it has disbursed more than $500,000 directly to individuals and families. But why are these mutual aid groups like EKY Mutual Aid and FAKY important?

Gerry Roll, the CEO of FAKY, said she doesn’t want to add to the grief that survivors are going through by asking them to justify why they deserve aid.

“It’s just to say we value your time, just to fill out this application is enough. To say, here’s some gas money, here’s some grocery money, here’s some ‘I don’t care what you do with it’ money, you are valuable to me,” she said.

While many have been receiving an award amount between $179 to $195 that is barely enough to cover basic expenses, there has been confusion on how this amount is really calculated. How FEMA determines need and award amounts is shrouded in mystery, and the lack of transparency can make any survivor lose hope.

The barriers to getting FEMA assistance, Roll said, are extremely high.

“If you’re lucky and you get the whole [$39,700] or $40,000 from FEMA, that’s only possible if your house was also new, if you have all the paperwork, if you didn’t lose your driver’s license, if you can prove that you not only own the house by yourself, but also the land by yourself,” she said.

But Roll said mutual aid doesn’t need to have those high barriers, because it’s built on the simple foundation of “helping your neighbor.”

“Mutual aid really means just mutual care and support for each other. Even if it’s just a phone, or just $250,” Roll said.

As FEMA assistance hangs in the air for many survivors, it’s assuring for many to know that mutual aid groups in the region have their back, and that they’re not alone.

Divya Karthikeyan covers Race & Equity for LPM.
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