How much FEMA money so far distributed to Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama:
Tennessee — $2.1 million
• Hamilton: N/A
• Bradley: N/A
Georgia — $2.8 million
• Catoosa: $419,000
• Dade: $514,000
• Walker: N/A
Alabama — $25.3
RINGGOLD, Ga. — When Chris Austin found a check in the mail from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he eagerly tore open the envelope.
But the Ringgold resident said he was disappointed to find a check for little more than a $100, barely enough to cover the cost of a humidifier to air out his muggy home, much less than to repair the leaky roof.
“I know there are a lot of people out there that need it more than me,” he said. “But I’m frustrated they couldn’t at least help me out more than they did.”
Several residents who believed FEMA was going to step in and help rebuild their home say they have been disappointed by the federal government’s response to the disastrous tornadoes that wrecked the area April 27.
“FEMA is one big joke,” said Evelyn Helms, a Ringgold residence, who was denied helped because her and her husband have home insurance.
But FEMA officials argue residents often have a misconception of their role, which is more of a stopgap than an actual fix.
“We can’t put you back the way you were,” said Bill Lindsey, a FEMA spokesman for Georgia. “But what we can do is give you a number of assistances to get you moving.”
So far FEMA officials say $2.8 million in checks already are in the hands or on the way to Georgia residents affected by the storm, while Tennessee residents have received about $2.1 million. Turnaround time from the approval to sending a check is about a week, officials said.
“Many people don’t understand the amount of money we’re putting out,” Lindsey said.
But even some city officials were surprised by the news that FEMA had begun to give out funds because of the amount of calls from residents worried they weren’t getting help.
“I wasn’t even aware they were sending any checks out,” said Dade County Executive Ted Rumley.
Many of the complaints about FEMA have come from homeowners with insurance who are upset when they automatically get a denial letter in the mail.
After Helms, 76, and her 77-year-old husband, William, spent several hours with a FEMA field worker getting their measurements taken and answering a long list of questions, she found a rejection letter in the mail the next morning.
FEMA also wouldn’t pay for a $500 chain saw her husband bought thinking the government would reimbursed him.
“I don’t think FEMA is doing anything except flapping their wings,” Evelyn Helms said.
But FEMA officials said homeowners with insurance are normally denied immediate assistance until the insurance companies have assessed the damage and given an estimate of what they will cover.
“We don’t duplicate insurance claims,” said Greg Hughes, a FEMA spokesman in Tennessee.
If homeowners continue to fill out the paperwork, they may be eligible for a grant in the future or for a U.S. Small Business Administration loan, Hughes said.
SBA is offering loans for homeowners that are approved with interest rates as low as 2.688 percent and for up to 30 years, officials said.
The first loan for a Hamilton County resident was approved this week for $20,000, said SBA spokesman Jelani Miller.
Jody Hemphill said when his mother, Nancy, a Ringgold resident, got the letter that she was denied a grant, he read further and realized she had to wait until the insurance came through. He said they are hopeful she will be eligible for a grant and won’t have to take a loan since her house is paid off.
“A lot of people may not be reading into it far enough,” Hemphill said.
Onnie Watts, a Ringgold resident, is also hopeful the government will pay to replace her Jeep, which was picked up in the storm as she was driving down Nashville Street when the tornado hit. But she said she is frustrated that no one from FEMA has stopped after she filled out the paperwork. “I haven't even had anyone come out and asses my vehicle yet,” she said.
But officials contend that the turnaround time in the Georgia counties affected by the storm has been 24 hours from the time when someone applies and an inspector goes to the house.
In the 10 Tennessee counties affected, 1,363 homes had been inspected by Thursday night out of the 3,975 that have applied, Hughes said.
“There’s always going to be a little bit of a lag time,” he said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...