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People wait hours for food assistance in wake of Hurricane Irma

By Tony Marrero
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Workers help applicants in Plant City on Monday. By 4 p.m., nearly 31,000 applications for households from 18 counties had been processed since the site opened last week. People were encouraged to apply in their own counties, but no one was turned away in Hillsborough. Today is the sixth and final day.

PLANT CITY

Hela Garcia and her mother, Gloria Ferrales, sat on folding chairs Monday under a small white tent, taking a brief respite from the midday sun beating down on the Plant City Stadium grounds.

A few minutes earlier, mother and daughter had walked out of another tent with a debit card that Ferrales will use to buy nearly $400 worth of food over the next two months. The money, courtesy of the federal government, is meant to help the 87-year-old disabled Tampa resident make up for the frozen steaks and other provisions she had to throw out when Hurricane Irma knocked out power at her home for three days.

"We're Cuban," Garcia said. "We like to eat a lot of meat, and she lost everything."

Getting the card from the Food for Florida disaster relief program took only minutes. But along with thousands of other storm victims, they had to sit in traffic for two hours as they slowly made their way into the stadium. Some reported wait times much longer than that.

Similar traffic problems were reported at the Holland G. Mangum Recreation Complex in Seminole, the Food for Florida site in Pinellas, where nearly 30,000 applications were processed while it was open from Sept. 27 to Oct. 2.

State officials say the traffic is a necessary inconvenience to pull off a sprawling, six-day operation to help storm victims who lost food or income because of Irma or had other storm-related expenses, such as temporary shelter costs and damage to homes.

The goal is to give a one-time financial boost to low-income families not already receiving food stamps, helping them recover from a storm that forced many to take time off from work or pour money into fuel tanks as they evacuated, said Kathleen Cowan, a family safety program manager for the Department of Children and Families.

"All of a sudden folks have to make the decision, do I pay my mortgage or rent or put food on the table," Cowan said as she stood in the air-conditioned tent for applicants with special needs. "This is to bridge the gap and help get people back on their feet. Even though it's a long drive and long wait to get here, families say this means a world of difference."

The program, a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is running in 48 Florida counties declared federal disaster areas in Irma's wake. The benefits compensate applicants for losses incurred between Sept. 5 and Oct. 4. It's the first time the program has been activated since 2005.

Applicants were encouraged to preregister online, but all must sit for an interview at their local site. The two-month potential payout for those who qualify based on household is significant, ranging from about $400 for a single-person household to about $1,850 for a family of six.

At the Plant City Stadium, some 450 employees manned the operation from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. By 4 p.m. Monday, nearly 31,000 applications for households from 18 counties had been processed since the site opened on Thursday, well outpacing the roughly 20,000 people expected for the six days.

Cowan acknowledged the demand — and accompanying traffic — in Plant City took state officials by surprise. But the stadium is close to a major interstate in an area of the county where officials knew the need is great, and has enough land for three tents and parking.

Applicants were encouraged to apply in their own counties, but no one was turned away in Hillsborough, Cowan said. Organizers brought in additional contract workers to help with parking to more quickly move cars onto the stadium grounds.

Applicants were not allowed to walk in to the site, so they lined up in cars and waited to enter and park. Once on the grounds, they funneled into the cavernous, 20,000 square-foot main tent or the smaller special needs tent to sit for an interview with staffers tapping away at laptop computers.

That part of the process moved quickly, several applicants told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. But there should be a way to prevent elderly and disabled applicants and parents with young children from sitting in a car for hours, said Barbara Allen of Thonotosassa.

"Once you're here, it's in and out, but they have to do better for them," Barbara Allen said.

As Irma bore down, Allen and her husband, Mark, decided to flee the mobile home they share with her parents. They packed up their Chevy Silverado and Chevy Tahoe and headed to Allen's grandmother's house in Green Cove Springs, about 170 miles to the north. The storm spared their home, but they lost a freezer full of food and paid for many gallons of gas.

Mark Allen, a self-employed painter, sat in traffic for hours last week to apply for benefits for him and his wife. He left with a card that will be loaded with nearly $800 over the next two months, which will go a long way, Barbara Allen said.

On Monday, Allen was back to help her disabled father apply for benefits. She decided to get out and walk while her father waited in traffic, but she was told he had to be there, too.

As she related the story, her father called from the car. He'd made it to the traffic signal around the corner, he reported, and would probably be there in half an hour.

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.