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After Hurricane Ian, residents struggle to get federal aid

(NewsNation) — For months, barrier islands in southwest Florida have been devastated by debris from Hurricane Ian. For some, the rubble is a reminder and reason not to return home.

“The nightmares and the realization of what I lived through is a lot,” said Sanibel resident Jennifer O’Neill.

She rode out Ian on Sanibel Island, at one point recording a video for her parents in case she didn’t make it out.

“I love you mom and dad,” she said in her message to them. “Thank you so much for everything.”

She ended up getting out alive — but is now dealing with the aftermath of the storm.

“I’m reminded very quickly how things are not going to be back to normal for a very long time,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill, like millions of others, filed a claim with FEMA for assistance after the Category 4 hurricane plowed through her community.

“They told me everything was OK, but when I went back online to check my status, they said I wasn’t in the disaster area, so they couldn’t help me,” O’Neill said. “It was extremely frustrating. It was like a slap in the face.”

Inspectors came out weeks later, and O’Neill finally got some assistance. But some people who spoke to NewsNation say they haven’t seen a dime — and haven’t worked since Hurricane Ian came through.

So far, FEMA has provided more than $2.97 billion to the state of Florida after Hurricane Ian. $769 million has gone to households and $358 million to the state for emergency response.

In a statement, FEMA told NewsNation that, “Teams are going door-to-door in hard-hit communities, operating one-stop Disaster Recovery Centers and supporting community outreach.”

A resident navigates a canoe to his flooded home on Whitecomb Drive along the shore of Lake Harney in Geneva, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. Despite the lake leveling off at a crested 8-feet above normal level, floodwaters from the St. Johns River have put his neighborhood underwater and continue to inundate other areas of Geneva and Sanford following historic levels of rainfall from Hurricane Ian. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)

It’s not just homes that were hit hard, but businesses, too. The U.S. Small Business Administration has provided $1 billion in disaster loans.

Chris Davison is the general manager at the Island Inn in Sanibel Island and applied for an SBA loan weeks ago. He’s still waiting for a response. Right now, he has the only open hotel on the island.

“It’s definitely taken a lot of hard work,” Davison said.  “In 2017, we actually took down an older lodge that was built in the ‘60s and replaced it with a lodge built up to code. Fifteen feet above ground and it was spared, relatively untouched.”

Without power, O’Neill — and most other residents on the island — still are not living in their homes.

“The inspector came and deemed my apartment safe. He said I was extremely lucky,” O’Neill said. “So, they gave me relocation assistance and that was it.”

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