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6 Investigates: FEMA’s bureaucracy – worse than you might think

Posted: 3:15 PM, May 08, 2018
Updated: 2018-07-30 13:13:21-04

It’s as though it’s designed to make you give up.

That’s the depth of FEMA’s bureaucracy, according to a Harvey survivor whose odyssey through FEMA’s process has taught her that, if there’s ever another hurricane, it’s best to drop the family heirlooms and grab the family files.

"I guess when a hurricane comes instead of packing your stuff, you need to get all your legal documents, cause that’s what they want," says Tabatha Castro, of Rockport.

Castro, a widow and mother of four kids under the age of 14, lost her home to Harvey.  She’s been fighting FEMA, ever since.

We introduced you to Castro in February , when we learned FEMA had actually assigned her a DHU (Direct Housing Unit) – the agency’s name for a temporary trailer – only to tell her later that she hadn’t qualified for one, after all.

Our investigation into what happened led to a request for Castro’s entire FEMA file. And, once we received it, the startling revelation of what the average FEMA survivor must endure.

In Castro’s case, a file more than a hundred pages long stuffed with personal documents such as death certificates, utility bills, receipts, marriage licenses, affidavits, requests for assistance and a laundry list of FEMA notices.

"You get a phone call ‘oh, you’re missing this, or missing that …’ it’s just, it’s devastating," Castro says of her months-long effort to get approved for rental assistance.

Not just that. We counted the names of more than 70 different FEMA representatives in Castro’s file log, a fact lending credence to Castro’s claim that each time FEMA calls, it’s a new person.

"It’s very frustrating. I’ve cried many nights," she says.

And yet, FEMA officials say the process is working – that the vast majority of FEMA applicants that actually qualified for help have received it.

As of the latest numbers , FEMA applicants in Nueces, San Patricio and Aransas counties have received a combined $64,000,000 in housing and other disaster-related expenses.

"For that person that hasn’t gotten their assistance yet or that’s struggling with the assistance – it’s never going to move fast enough," says FEMA’s top Texas official, Kevin Hannes.

We asked Hannes, "Why?"

 "Because, let’s face it, we’re a bureaucracy."

Hannes, whose office is hundreds of miles from the coast near downtown Austin, says what must not get lost in the narrative is all the help FEMA has given.

He stresses that Hurricane Harvey recovery is not just FEMA. It is the Texas General Land Office and local governments, as well.

And, despite the individual assessments of some survivors whose experiences may mirror that of Tabatha Castro, Hannes says, overall, the recovery has been a success.

Castro, who only recently was approved for ongoing rental assistance, begs to differ.

"FEMA needs to come and talk to some of the residents of Aransas County, because they’re story’s going to be completely different than what FEMA’s saying. I think they failed."