Les Vaughn of Harrison Twp. has not registered for FEMA. Despite not knowing for sure, Vaughn believes insurance will cover all the costs of repairing his damaged house and rebuilding three garages he lost during Memorial Day tornadoes. “If I don’t need it … I don’t ask for it,” he said. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF
Photo: Chris Stewart
Photo: Chris Stewart

Not all tornado survivors sign up for FEMA assistance

Hundreds of tornado survivors likely eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance have not yet signed up, say those working on area recovery efforts.

There are pockets of tornado damaged homes where people are reluctant to engage with FEMA or owners can’t be found, said Cherish Cronmiller, president and CEO of Miami Valley Community Action Partnership.

The damaged homes are typically older and often owned by absentee landlords or remain in the name of a deceased relative, all factors that add “a number of complexities” making recovery more of a challenge even if working through FEMA, she said.

Miami Valley Tornadoes: How did they affect your community?

“For some of those individuals they are very proud of where they’re at and they don’t want to leave and they don’t want the government in their business and they don’t necessarily want a handout,” said Cronmiller, whose nonprofit already runs some home programs and has pivoted to also offer tornado recovery housing assistance.

Les Vaughn of Harrison Twp. has not registered with FEMA. Despite not knowing for sure, Vaughn said he believes insurance will cover all the costs of repairing his damaged house and rebuilding three garages he lost during Memorial Day tornadoes.

“If I don’t need it … I don’t ask for it,” Vaughn said.

He also declined help when volunteers came around to clean up his Harrison Twp. neighborhood.

“If I needed their help, I would have asked them,” Vaughn said. “But there were more people who needed help.”

As of Monday, 4,027 individuals or households had registered with FEMA in the 11-counties declared federal disaster areas. Of those, 3,145 came from Montgomery County. Greene County registrations numbered 383, while 94 were reported in Miami County, according to FEMA.

MORE: FEMA help available for tornado victims; President Trump declares disaster area

After accounting for the local damage and comparing it to past disasters, FEMA projections suggest up to another 1,400 individuals and households locally may be expected to register but have yet to sign up for FEMA grants or low-interest Small Business Administration loans, Mary Kucenski, a FEMA voluntary agency liaison, said this week.

A few may be afraid of the government, Kucenski told area nonprofit groups working to organize long-term tornado recovery efforts.

“They don’t want to come to FEMA,” she said. “They are still in their homes with no electric and water since the day of the storms hanging out waiting for something to get better. So that’s why we need to advocate for people and make them aware of what’s possible.”

MORE: Community-by-community survey of tornado damage, cleanup efforts

Area officials are also encouraging survivors, including those who believe they are insured, to register by the Aug. 19 deadline.

“I think the critical thing over the next few weeks is we’ve got to make sure everyone that has had any kind of damage is registered with them. Even if they are insured,” said Montgomery County Commission President Debbie Lieberman. “A lot of people are underinsured and don’t even know it yet.”

A complex set of damage thresholds, or “impact criteria,” determines eligibility for individual federal assistance and low-interest loans. A key element is how much storm damage is covered by insurance and how much is uninsured, according to FEMA.

PHOTOS: Tornado outbreak in Miami Valley

Eugene and Pearl Gudger have not registered with FEMA despite getting an insurance settlement they already know won’t likely cover the damage to their Harrison Twp. house.

Both 86 and with myriad health problems, the Harrison Twp. couple said they had a hard time just navigating life before the tornadoes ripped holes in their roof.

“We have not had it good,” Pearl said.

Going online to sign up is not an option for them, she said.

“I don’t know nothing about computers,” she said. “I wouldn’t even know how to turn one on.”

Having friends or family members drive older survivors to an area disaster recovery center is one option to get expanded services that can include crisis counseling, said Leo Skinner, a FEMA spokesperson.

Cronmiller said some in the community were victims of the storms but don’t want to raise the interest of immigration authorities.

“They are terrified, even if they have the proper legal documents,” she said. “They have these inherent fears that something is going to come up and show that they should be deported somehow. So they don’t want to be anywhere on the radar of the federal government.”

Montgomery County Commissioner Judy Dodge said many who haven’t registered are still coming to terms with a disaster that took away important parts of their lives.

“I think a lot of people are still grieving. They just have a hard time putting one foot in front of the other,” Dodge said. “This is a big deal. They have to find their paperwork, and they are probably not even living in the house … They’re just overwhelmed.”

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