Thousands may not get aid for Dolly

Many survivors of Hurricane Dolly say they fear they have been forgotten as they are unable to qualify for federal aid.

BY PJ HELLER | LOS FRESNOS, TX | October 8, 2008

Maria Morillon sorts through some of the items from her daughter's house.
Credit: DNN/PJ Heller

Maria Martinez stands outside her rented home in the Green Valley Farms colonia.
Credit: DNN/PJ Heller

Maria Morillon would like nothing more than to be able to move back into her home.

But it may be some time before that happens.

Her small two-bedroom house in the colonia known as Del Mar Heights is currently crowded with four other family members: her 83-year-old mother, her 11-year-old nephew who is cared for by her mother, her pregnant 19-year-old daughter and her daughter's 3-year-old child.

Morillon, meantime, has moved into a friend's RV with her 8-year-old son. She pays $190 a month for rent and utilities.

Morillon is one of possibly thousands of south Texas residents who have, or will, fall through the federal government's safety net designed to help those impacted by Hurricane Dolly. The storm roared into Texas July 23 as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 100 mph.

Since then, she and others affected by the storm say they have largely been forgotten as attention first shifted to Hurricane Gustav and New Orleans and now to Hurricane Ike.

"We're forgotten," Morillon said, sifting through some of the ruined items from her daughter's house, which along with her mother's house, both sit on the same small parcel of land as her home just outside Los Fresnos.

"We do need help," she said. "My mom needs help and so do my daughter and people that were really, really damaged. I don't know how they're going to do it, but they do need help."

Although Morillon's house was not damaged by Dolly, except for a few shingles that were torn from the roof, her mother's and daughter's houses didn't fare nearly as well.

Despite sandbags, which still surround the houses, both residences were inundated with water, destroying furniture, appliances, rugs and other items. There was also some roof damage.

"My daughter lost everything," Morillon said, adding that there was also precious little left of her mother's possessions.

So Morillon moved her mother and daughter, along with the two children, into her house and moved herself and her son into an RV elsewhere.

"I see my mom and my daughter's house and I feel bad. I feel real bad," Morillon said. "Thank God nothing happened to me because I'm a single mom. I'm a single parent.

"I told my mom she can stay here as long as she wants," she added. "I just want her happy."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected claims by the family for aid, she said, saying that the amount of damages was not great enough for assistance. Although they were told they could appeal, as well as apply for loans through the Small Business Administration, they rejected both ideas as being both too complicated and, in the case of a loan, too difficult if not impossible to repay.

"We'll find a way to fix it," Morillon said of a planned repair effort. "We'll just buy the material and we'll get friends to help us out. I'm not saying tomorrow or today. It's going to take us time, but we'll fix it."

Plans for a faith-based, long-term recovery committee may prove to be a lifeline for Morillon and thousands of other residents in the region, many of whom live in the low-income, Spanish-speaking colonias near the Texas-Mexico border. Some colonias in Texas — there are nearly 2,300 of them with a population of about 400,000 — lack some of the most basic living necessities, such as potable water and sewer systems, electricity, paved roads and safe and sanitary housing, according to state officials.

In Del Mar Heights, more than 60 percent of families and almost 67 percent of individuals were below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census.

Hildago, Starr and Cameron counties, the latter where Morillon lives, are among the border counties with the highest colonia populations. Those three counties, along with Willacy County, are the four counties being targeted by the proposed long-term Faith Communities for Disaster Recovery committee.

Volunteers were reported at the ready to come in and help residents such as Morillon once the committee is officially established.

"Oh yes, it definitely would help," Morillon said when told of a possible faith-based response. "I never heard about that. That would help. What is it we have to do for that . . . How do we know about it?"

Her neighbor, Elidia Cantu, also expressed hope that such help would be forthcoming. Her home suffered water damage from flooding and from shingles that were ripped off the roof. Her mother, 76-year-old Carolina Tellez, lives next door and her home also suffered some roof damage.

"We're hoping for some kind of assistance . . ." Cantu said. "I don't know a lot of places that would help us."

Cantu said she was told by FEMA that her home did not suffer enough damage to quality for assistance. Her mother's request for an SBA loan is pending, but Cantu said they weren't holding out much hope. Even if the loan is approved, Cantu said, she questioned how they would manage to repay it.

In the meantime, Cantu and her mother are leaving the sandbags around the perimeter of their homes and the boards across most of the windows.

"I'm just going to wait," Cantu said of the repairs. "What I'm waiting for is the hurricane season to end [before starting on repairs]. I'm praying to God that this whole season of hurricanes goes away and we don't have no more hurricanes."

Cantu also expressed bitterness about the way public assistance, from FEMA and others, was doled out in the U.S. She complained, for example, that people who earned more money than she does received FEMA assistance. Morillon added that "people who didn't really need the help" received FEMA assistance, claiming that some of the damages reported were not the direct result of Dolly.

In the Green Valley Farms colonia, also in Cameron County, a bright blue tarp on the roof of Maria Martinez's house stood out in the blazing sunshine.

Martinez's home suffered extensive water damage, forcing her to throw out furniture, beds and other household items. One of her cars was also left inoperable.

"There was water everywhere," said Martinez, a truck driver who lives in the house with her daughter, her handicapped mother who is on dialysis and her brother and sister-in-law. Martinez is the sole provider for the family, she said through an interpreter.

Martinez rents the house and said the landlord was unwilling to make the repairs. He also refused to give Martinez a credit on the rent for any repairs that she made.

"It leaks everywhere," she said.

Green Valley Farms is in a low-lying area which floods frequently when there are rains. Nearly half of the families living in the area were below the poverty line, the 2000 census reported.

"A lot of people are not getting help," agreed Carlos Cantu, another Green Valley Farms resident and no relation to Elidia Cantu.

Workers scrambled across Cantu's roof to repair the storm damage.

"I didn't ask for no help," he said, noting that unlike most of his neighbors, "I've got insurance."

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