Weeks before it happened, the federal government anticipated Florida’s disorganized effort to give out emergency food assistance after Hurricane Irma.
The feds expressed concern that Florida was not prepared to handle the expected crowds, according to records obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. The initial plan left out details about how the state would staff relief sites and supply water, restrooms and other necessities to thousands of people waiting for assistance.
Although the plans were later amended, the problems arose anyway.
When the program launched in South Florida about two weeks ago, law enforcement ordered several South Florida relief sites closed because of health and safety concerns. People stuck in long lines fainted from the heat. Traffic snarled neighborhoods. Some left frustrated, confused and empty-handed.
“I am absolutely blown away by how poorly the program was run by the state,” said Palm Beach County Commissioner Dave Kerner, who said he was never told that John Prince Park near Lake Worth would be used as a disaster relief site.
DCF officials say their initial plan was simply a preliminary request to allow the state to start coordinating with the federal government. The final application was completed shortly thereafter, they say.
“We have worked very closely with our federal partners to implement this federal program,” the agency said.
The program provides benefit cards — sometimes exceeding $1,000 — to people who don’t get food stamps but suffered damage and income loss in the storm. The federal government provides funding, but the state operates the relief sites.
Mike Carroll, who leads the Florida Department of Children and Families, wrote in a letter to the Sun Sentinel that the state conducts annual exercises and engages in “extensive planning” with local partners to smoothly distribute aid at disaster relief sites.
But the state’s initial request to operate the program, filed three days after Hurricane Irma hit Sept. 10, lacked key details, and a federal administrator wrote that the agency was “concerned that DCF has not provided a complete plan.”
Information on staffing and application sites were left as “TBD” on the form. The state keeps a 111-page plan outlining general policies and procedures for the emergency food relief program on file, but more specific details must be submitted after a disaster strikes.
Federal officials asked the state for more documentation showing it had adequate staffing, a crowd management strategy, special accommodations in place for the elderly and people with disabilities and a commitment to providing water, restroom facilities and other “human comforts” to those lining up for help.
The state amended its four-page request to 11 pages, including dates and times that relief sites would operate, anticipated turnout and staffing, and a few more details. The federal government then agreed Sept. 21 to allow Florida to move forward, deeming the application to be complete.
The state wrote in its amended plan that site managers would work with the American Red Cross to provide water, sunblock and other necessities to those in line. But Roberto Baltodano, a spokesman for the organization based in South Florida, said the state never requested Red Cross assistance.
DCF officials give a different account saying they “coordinated with local Red Cross chapters across South Florida.”
Federal and state officials expected nearly 2.5 million households might apply. As of Thursday, the state had issued benefits to 900,000 households, totaling $745 million.
In terms of staffing, the state’s plan listed 429 people at Broward’s three sites, including 43 employees assigned to fraud prevention.
Broward County received about 67,000 applications in a four-day span, equating to about 16,750 a day, based on state numbers.
Statewide, DCF officials say they assigned 6,000 to the effort, including 1,500 temporary workers hired specifically to staff the program.
The University of Miami Health Rights Clinic and other advocacy groups have sent a letter to the federal government demanding changes be made before make-up events are held sometime in the next two weeks in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, “rather than re-creating the same failed model.”
Clinic director JoNel Newman said she didn’t think the state met its requirement to accommodate the elderly and disabled — those most in need of assistance. Federal rules allow states to provide home visits, Skype interviews or other alternatives to elderly and disabled applicants.
“I see no evidence they tried to do anything other than have people come to the park and stand in line,” Newman said.
State officials say they moved people with disabilities to the front of the line, provided separate entrances and tents and allowed applicants to send someone to apply on their behalf.
Despite some sites being closed because of overwhelming crowds, the federal government praised the state in its latest letter Oct. 19, writing it “commends DCF for its preparation and efforts.”
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