Queens community board and Borough Hall officials raised concerns Tuesday over language access as residents across the borough apply for federal and city recovery aid in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
When the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the city Comptroller’s Office briefed the Queens Borough Cabinet on the response to Hurricane Ida, cabinet members raised the issue at several points during the meeting.
The federal agencies’ presentation to the cabinet, which consists of all Queens’ district managers and the borough president, was primarily focused on detailing different categories of aid available to residents who were affected by the storm, from those who lost everything to those who need a one-time property cleanup. A FEMA spokesperson responded to the language concerns that the agency has a recovery hotline available in 24 different languages.
“I think that during Covid one of the problems was that the people who maybe needed the help the least got the most help because they knew how to navigate the system better,” said Community Board 5 District Manager Gary Giordano. He proceeded to ask how the agency was getting the word out that support was available.
FEMA specialist Bryon Boka said that the agency has been putting fliers up “in the designated counties” in 10 different languages that it identifies as the most common in certain pockets of Queens.
Franck D. Joseph II, Borough President Donovan Richards’ chief of staff, who ran the online meeting in the BP’s absence, said his office had seen a lot of Spanish-, Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking individuals reaching out about filling out claims.
Boka’s presentation focused more on walking through the main categories of relief that are available to Queens residents.
In the realm of housing, both homeowners and renters can apply with FEMA for assistance. For homeowners, FEMA will provide an inspection of the damages to their residence and, if approved, the agency will send money directly to the survivor to pay for repairs. Support for renters typically comes in the form of “two months’ rental assistance,” Boka said. It is generally used to help residents who had to relocate from their residence. The agency will also reimburse residents for the cost of living in a hotel for seven days after a disaster.
Individual FEMA funding in those forms is not available to undocumented residents, and cannot duplicate any reimbursement that insurance would provide.
Outside of the realm of housing, the agency will provide funds for funeral arrangements, medical and dental care, childcare, the replacement of miscellaneous items, moving and storage expenses and cleaning costs.
The cleaning and sanitizing funds are limited to $300 per household and come in a one-time payment.
While FEMA provides federal payment for residents affected by the storm, the SBA will provide low-interest loans for businesses that were affected, as well as for homeowners and renters who don’t qualify for FEMA funding for one reason or another.
“The process is to go to FEMA first, then you are referred over to SBA and we’re there to provide any long-term assistance to homeowners or renters that may have insurance and maybe they’re waiting on the insurance to come through,” said SBA specialist Sherrod Schuler.
The agency will provide loans of up to $200,000 for home repairs and $40,000 for personal property to homeowners and renters for physical property damages. For businesses, it will provide up to $2 million in loans for physical damage or long-term economic injury.
The city Comptroller’s Office also presented at the meeting, and is accepting claims in cases where damages from the storm are the result of city negligence, but the agency’s representative suggested that the effects of Ida’s flooding largely do not fit that criteria.
“It’s important to understand that generally there is no city liability for damage that results from extreme weather, such as last month’s flooding,” said Katrina Asante, the comptroller’s representative.
The SBA and FEMA both are providing in-person help at a disaster recovery center at Queens College’s Student Union, at 152-45 Melbourne Ave. in Flushing, which offers free, one-on-one assistance with applications. Multilingual information from FEMA regarding Ida recovery can be found at bit.ly/3oxZ5tF.