FEMA grants not affordable for many devastated by Lee County tornado

Storm safety linked to income

BEAUREGARD, AL (WBRC) - Silence is something Tiffany Robinson has had to get used to.

“They stayed getting on each other’s nerves, but you would not see one without the other one,” said Robinson, sitting on her front porch.

She smiled as she remembered how her parents, married for 36 years, teased each other. Within seconds, her laughter fades and the only sounds are the creaking of her chair as it rocks back and forth and the wind chimes rattling in the wind.

“I hate that they are gone," she said and pauses, "but I am glad that they went together because I don’t think one would have been able to do without the other.”

Picture of Raymond and Tresia Robinson found after March 3, 2019 tornado.
Picture of Raymond and Tresia Robinson found after March 3, 2019 tornado. (Source: Credit: Tiffany Robinson)

Robinson survived the tornado that killed her parents, Raymond and Tresia, and 21 others. The storm tore across 26 miles, clearing acres of trees, tossing vehicles with ease and blowing through brick homes. An estimated 200 manufactured homes were damaged and most of the people killed on March 3, 2019, including Robinson’s parents, were in a manufactured home when the storm hit.

The chance of surviving a tornado is dramatically less for someone taking shelter in a manufactured home. The closest public shelter to Robinson is a 15-minute drive and on the day of the storm, she only had seconds to get to safety.

"By the time I got to the kitchen, I got an alert on my phone saying a tornado was on the ground and then all of a sudden we heard a lot of wind and my mom said, 'Take shelter,' so from the kitchen to the bedroom closet, it had hit us," said Robinson. "I barely got the closet door closed."

Dealing with "flashbacks and nightmares," Robinson worries about what she will do when the next storm comes.

She continued, “When there is a tornado watch put out, the closest storm shelter that opens is Providence, but it takes me 15 minutes to get there. Anything can happen in 15 minutes.”

Providence Baptist Church is the only public shelter nearby and since last year’s tornado, it’s been packed every time there’s severe weather.

“Hundreds,” said David Dismukes, a member of Providence Baptist Church. “There is a great demand for shelters and our community sees it. Most people want them and most people need them."

But for Robinson, and many in her community, individual storm shelters are too expensive.

Without one, Robinson said, "I feel like I would just be... a sitting duck."

Federal Help

President Donald Trump approved a Major Disaster Declaration after the storm, giving Lee County access to the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP).

HMGP funds can only be used on projects that would lessen the risk of loss of life or property in a future disaster. Lee County Emergency Management Agency requested to use the funds, approximately $383,782, for individual storm shelters.

“Life safety is, of course, the number one priority in a Hazard Mitigation Plan,” said Rita Smith, Emergency Management Specialist and Master Public Information Officer, Lee County Emergency Management Agency. “This particular grant period, we utilized those funds for individual storm shelter grant applicants.”

The applicant is responsible for covering the entire cost of the shelter up-front. FEMA will reimburse 75% of the cost with a $4,000 maximum payout. The remaining expense is the individual’s responsibility.

Shelters, "average between $4,500-6,000," but can cost much more depending on the size, explained Smith.

The grant was available to every Lee County resident, with priority given to those directly impacted by the storm. The application period closed in January and approvals are pending. FEMA sets deadlines for when the project must begin and when it must be completed, but there is no set time-frame for reimbursement.

Lee County Commissioner Robert Ham believes the grant is a deal, just not one that works for those who might need it most.

“For those who just lost everything and don’t have those resources available to them, the grant might as well not even be available,” said Commissioner Ham. “What’s happened is once these people had been through this tragedy, they didn’t have any money, they didn’t have the 25%. They were eligible for the grant but when it came time to sign and say, ‘Yes, I’ll be responsible for the 25%,’ they were telling us ‘No.’”

WBRC FOX6 On Your Side Investigators spoke with several people who live in the area devastated by the storms and found many were unable to afford the grant.

One person, who did not want to be identified, said he has poor credit and couldn't qualify for another loan. But even with help covering the up-front expense, he's on a fixed-income and said he couldn't afford the 25% share.

Several others shared similar stories - struggles with credit, savings drained to replace all they lost, unable to work because of injuries from the storm.

"The people in that area who have been through this tragedy, they're looking up at the sky and they're scared another tornado might come out of the sky and hurt them again," said Commissioner Ham.

Robinson calls shelters, “a necessity,” but she doesn’t have the money necessary to take advantage of the grant. And without a charity’s donation, she wouldn’t be getting one.

Commissioner Ham said Robinson’s case is one of many, where generosity is closing the gap, providing invaluable safety that shouldn’t be unaffordable.

"I think they deserve the right to have the physical safety and the mental safety of what the storm shelter will give them."

Change needed

After the tornado, Dismukes got in his truck and went to work.

"Within minutes, we had folks with 4-wheel drive and chainsaws out clearing the roads," he said. "We didn't have to wait for the state operatives to come in and clear the roads and try to clean up. We got after it ourselves."

In the same way, Dismukes and Commissioner Ham said the community - from charities to churches - helped provide storm shelters for those who couldn’t afford the FEMA grant. But, they know it’s not a Lee County or even an Alabama challenge. The federal grant is structured the same for any community, anywhere in the country.

“It’s not going to help our situation because it’s over, but it will the next one for somebody else, and that’s kind of what we wanted to do is to set the stage for making this process where it’s more possible for other people in the future,” said Commissioner Ham.

Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said legislation is needed to help make the grant more affordable. When asked if the structure favors the wealthy and upper-middle class he said, “Obviously, there is a concern about that.”

Senator Jones introduced the Storm Shelter Act last summer that if passed, “would create a one-time refundable tax credit of up to $2,500 for homeowners to build or purchase a storm shelter at their primary residence.”

“We are starting to explore different ways to make sure the people who need [shelters] the most have access to it and it’s folks in manufactured homes, mobile homes, those are the folks that really need these shelters the most and that’s what we are trying to look to protect,” said Jones.

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