My mom, Sandra Motyl, bought a modest 1100 square foot home in 1993 in St. Augustine, FL, so that I could have a backyard and get a dog. And when I say modest, I mean modest. It was built in 1953, and 40 years later, still had the original kitchen, a vintage 1950’s tiny pink bathroom, and the washer-dryer connection out in the garage where the snakes liked to startle her. Over the years, she would work 80 hours+ per week in order to keep that roof over our heads, and to provide her security in her old age.
Disaster Strikes Twice:
Sadly, those plans were dashed when Hurricane Matthew dealt St. Augustine a severe glancing blow in October 2016. Three feet of tidal surge flooded her home, and a neighborhood sewer breach made the floodwaters especially dangerous and damaging. One neighbor got an infection that almost caused her to lose her leg.
My mom’s home was rendered uninhabitable, and almost all of her belongings were destroyed. She had tried to protect some items by placing them up high, but the current was so strong that it knocked everything over into the dirty floodwaters – even appliances as heavy as the refrigerator. That smell of muck, seawater, mold, and sewage gets into your lungs, and never leaves your memory.
Then just11 months later, the unimaginable happened when Hurricane Irma struck, again severely flooding her home and ruining what little she had earlier been able to salvage.
Insurance is Not Enough
The storm damage was devastating, but it is the governmental bureaucracy that is causing her the greater harm. She had always been responsible and carried flood insurance, but it is only after disaster strikes that most people learn how little protection it offers. Unlike homeowner’s insurance, flood insurance does not cover temporary housing while one’s home is being rebuilt, and St. Augustine has a tremendous shortage of affordable housing with so many families still storm-displaced. The stress of finding and moving from short-term rental to short-term rental is exhausting.
FEMA does offer a small allowance for temporary housing to some disaster victims, but the amount is based on HUD rents and is less than half the average rent in most communities. Regardless, my mom was denied transitional shelter assistance from FEMA, and the lengthy morass of paperwork and countless hours on the phone during repeated appeals – which were ultimately denied – only added to her stress. FEMA is no friend to disaster victims.
Probably the biggest stressor and most impossible hurdle to overcome is the governmental bureaucracy. Flood insurance only pays to bring your home back to the condition it was pre-disaster. However, FEMA requires that the structure be rebuilt higher up above base flood elevation, but only provides a small contribution toward that extremely expensive mandate.
Unfair Unfunded Mandates
Florida is one of only a handful of states that requires homeowners to simultaneously bring all aspects of the home up to current and very costly building codes when rebuilding after a disaster. One example would be having to replace her perfectly good windows with pricey hurricane impact windows. Just one of a slew of expensive but unfunded mandates, that if the homeowner doesn’t comply with, they will not be issued building permits nor a certificate of occupancy allowing them to move back into their home.
When storm victims are enduring their darkest hours, after they’ve lost everything they’ve worked their entire lives for, and are struggling to pay rent while also paying the mortgage, taxes, and insurance on an uninhabitable home, the government is demanding that they come up with many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars to comply with endless regulations and to repeatedly submit mountains of paperwork.
My mom has tried to clarify and rectify this bureaucratic nightmare by meeting with FEMA/NFIP Regional Director Kevin Brown, Senator Marco Rubio’s staff, Senator Bill Nelson’s staff, the Director of the Florida Division of Insurance, as well as countless local officials and FEMA representatives, and has been told simply that they are very sorry, but that current legislation causes people in her situation to fall through the cracks and be left to render for themselves. In effect, this is a case of the government denying a homeowner use of their property.
How You Can Help
My mom has been fighting for over a year now to get back into her home, and has depleted her resources. Any amount you could contribute would be received with heartfelt gratitude, and would go toward rebuilding her home, as well as temporary housing and other immediate living expenses.
You cannot begin to imagine the heavy toll such a prolonged period of displacement, stress, and uncertainty takes on an individual’s physical and emotional well-being. My mom has worked very hard all of her life, has been very generous with her time and resources when others were down on their luck, and has helped many, many people to find jobs. I hope others will help her in her time of need. Thank you very much for your support, even if it’s just to share our story or to send well-wishes.
- Pam Sims
- Tony Gallotto
- John Ruff
Organizer and beneficiary
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