Just below ground toward the end of a narrow hallway framed by textured, lime-sherbet walls, a man sits quietly in an electric wheelchair. He doesn't move much. Dark, oval-lensed sunglasses clasp the temples of his great, smooth head; he removes them and the eyes beneath are heavy almonds, reddened and tired-looking. A brushy steel-gray fringe bends like a bristled strap across his upper lip. When he speaks, it's with a deep, oaken voice that carpets the hall like a bass line.
"The greatest help for a man in my condition, with the legs like I had, was the water," says Walter Jenkins, 65, recounting his journey from New Orleans to San Antonio in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina nearly a year ago. Occasionally there are glimpses of his kinetic counterpoint, his 8-year-old daughter Macey -- a pretty, charged-particle of a girl with a moonbeam smile as big as her face. Her head is a seething tangle of braids as she bounds from one room to the next in the basement of the Travis Park United Methodist Church, pink plastic sandals slapping the green tile floor.
Hard to imagine she was ever unhappy.
"When we touched down in Baton Rouge for a few minutes ... that's when the separation happened," says Jenkins, who was choppered out of the Crescent City after swimming his way to higher ground with Macey on his back and spending a hellish three days in the chaotic New Orleans Convention Center.
"They wouldn't let my little baby come with me," he recalls. "And I passed out and I was out for, I'd say, about seven to eight, nine hours. I wasn't sleepin', I was out." Jenkins, who is a diabetic and has been on dialysis for the past four-and-a-half years, had to be airlifted to San Antonio to receive care, as Louisiana facilities were already teeming with patients. Macey was left in Baton Rouge, and didn't see her father for six days. They were reunited when one of Jenkins' caretakers spotted Macey on a CBS telecast and called the network. CBS paid for Macey's transportation to San Antonio, where she was reunited with her father.
Things have since looked up for the pair -- relatively, at least. They have settled into an apartment in a "very nice complex," received help from a local Baptist church ("If it wasn't for Reverend Richardson ... " says Jenkins, who was a pastor himself in New Orleans), and, with his monthly $633 Social Security check, are somehow scraping by.
The biggest aid, however, has come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which currently pays every bit of Jenkins' $700-plus rent. But come the end of July, according to a letter Jenkins received in mid-June from FEMA, that aid will no longer be there.
"Nobody didn't know nothin' about that," he says. "That wasn't a surprise, that was a shock."
Macey and her father are among the 46,634 evacuee families across Texas -- and the 1,058 such families (approximately 2,700 individuals) in San Antonio -- currently receiving FEMA rental assistance under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, designed in 1973 (and since amended) to direct federal-aid response in emergency situations. The president officially declared Katrina a "major disaster" on Aug. 29, 2005. Thus, under Section 403 of the Stafford Act, FEMA has, since September or so, provided temporary rental assistance for evacuees while their eligibility for extended aid under the longer-term Section 408 plan -- based, essentially, on verifiable New Orleans residency, head-of-household status, and the extent of property damage sustained -- can be determined.
The transition's the thing, says Texas FEMA spokesman Don Jacks. From the 403 plan, under which FEMA reimburses public entities like the San Antonio Housing Authority for aid given -- which was intended to be a one- to three-month program -- to the 408, in which FEMA gives aid to individuals.
The most crucial difference between the two programs is duration. Section 408 requires FEMA to help eligible survivors until 18 months after the Aug. 29 declaration date, or February 2007. As of July 31, however, FEMA will cease to pay rent for anyone whose eligibility for transition to the 408 has been declined or remains pending -- approximately 6,000 people in Texas, Jacks says. Effective at the end of July, then, there may be some new faces showing up on San Antonio's streets. Jacks says the July 31 cut-off could have happened far earlier. The program originally was supposed to end Dec. 1, 2005, but was extended several times. "We have continued to work with these evacuees, because there is a group of them that will not qualify for any assistance after July 31," he says.
That group apparently includes Jenkins and his daughter -- though Jenkins is appealing that decision.
"We sent a letter in, seeing what's gonna happen," he says. "They said either we'll know something within two weeks or three weeks. ... We don't know, we don't know. We're in the dark."
GLORIA AND WILLIE WILLIAMS, 56 AND 57 respectively, received a similar letter and are also appealing their status. Gloria has breast cancer and back trouble; Willie has a prosthetic left leg and no toes on his right foot, and, like Jenkins, is a diabetic. FEMA currently foots their monthly $590 rent payment, and the two pull about $1,500 a month from Social Security; Gloria is on Medicaid.
"We don't want to go back," says Gloria, who tells of seeing rape and other atrocities while holed up in the Superdome, waiting for rescue. "It's messed up."
Willie agrees, and says they'll be at a loss for answers come July 31. "I don't know ... we're catching problems right now, [and] FEMA's payin' rent," he laments. "I'll be honest with you; we don't even have food right now. ... The food I eat, the diet food, it's very expensive."
The Williams' monthly expenses include a $260 car payment, $250 for life insurance (on which they're behind, Gloria says), bedroom-furniture rental at $200, car insurance at $67, and $159 for digital cable. Willie says he frequently goes without pills for his high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The Williams seem confused at their apparent 408 ineligibility; they feel they meet every criterion. Proving it, however, might be a different matter.
"There was a lot of extended families in New Orleans," Jacks says. "And the mother and father lived there, and their older children lived there, and their children, and so you had all these family groups under one roof. Well, the father or the mother who owned the home were really, technically, the only ones who were eligible for disaster assistance."
More troublesome, though, is the particularly sticky challenge of replacing and/or attaining identification, without which any hope of proving eligibility for aid, applying for a job in Texas or signing up for just about any in-state service imaginable dims considerably.
"We have to have some proof that says, you know, that you were the head of household and that you owned the home, and that it was at this particular address," Jacks says. "We've had people tell us that they owned a home at this particular address in New Orleans and we checked and it was an empty lot, and there was no record of them having paid utilities there, having a phone there or anything like that."
San Antonio's Katrina I.D. Recovery Program operates under the auspices of the Christian nonprofit organization Corazon Ministries, currently working out of the basement of Travis Park United Methodist Church.
"We get people coming in with nothing, nothing, to people who are coming in with everything to walk into DMV other than the money," says Henrí Stewart, one of three full-time I.D.-recovery specialists employed by the program. She says most people still show up with insufficient proof of identity, and that's where the legwork starts.
"There are some people we've been working on for months," she says.
In order to obtain a Texas I.D. or driver license, an applicant must present acceptable documentation, which falls into a rather distinct hierarchy. Primary identification, such as a current U.S. passport, a military I.D., or a U.S. citizenship certificate with photograph, is the gold standard, and requires no additional support to legally establish identity. A single piece of secondary I.D., such as a birth certificate, a current out-of-state driver's license or a certified court order, cannot stand on its own; the applicant must also present either an additional secondary I.D. or two lesser "supporting documents." These supporting documents constitute the third tier of identification: school records, Social Security cards, insurance policies, vehicle titles, marriage or divorce licenses or pilots' licenses.
"It's set up to where it's kind of a Catch-22," says I.D. Recovery Director Dennis Maricelli. "If you do have a Social Security number but you don't have a card or any record to prove it, if you go to the Social Security office, they'll give you a little piece of paper saying that somebody with the name that you gave them has that number ... but they won't verify that it's you because you don't have an I.D. But you can't get an I.D. unless you have ... a Social Security card and a birth certificate and at least one other piece of ... paperwork. ... But you can't get any of those, unless you have an I.D. to get them."
The group has even fingerprinted people without any way of verifying their ID and sent them to the FBI to have them validated, Maricelli says, but "any bureaucracy takes a long time. Something a lot of these people don't have is a lot of time." There are also plenty of successes down in the church basement. Asked how much personal I.D. he had upon leaving Louisiana, Jenkins lets out a sarcastic whoop.
"Hahaaaaaaaa. Haaaaaaaaa," he says. "No I.D." Then, earnestly: "Praise God for these people here. They're helping me get that. Thank God." Jenkins says he would like to get, among other things, a job as a "sitting-down" security guard as a financial cushion. He has obtained a Corazon-underwritten DPS check, the last step, for many, in securing a Texas I.D.
AT A GLANCE, THE ARTISAN AT WILLOW Springs seems interchangeable with any other "affordable luxury" apartment complex: same rubric of limestone and earth-toned concrete (taupe, in this case); same sharp, clean lines; same mild, innocuous, poetic-lite handle, calculated to evoke pastoral idyll in the face of enveloping city sprawl. It's larger than some, with its 248 units occupying almost a dozen-and-a-half acres. It's a nice-looking, if aesthetically unremarkable, place and almost brand-new.
What sets the Artisan apart lies not without, but within. Developed under the San Antonio Housing Finance Corporation to cater to low-income tenants, the complex began leasing in the summer of 2005, reserving all units for families whose earnings amounted to less than 50-60 percent of the Area Median Income. Appropriately enough, between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15 of last year, United Apartment Group, which manages the Artisan, moved onto its fledgling site no fewer than 40 families fleeing the wide and woeful swath of Hurricane Katrina.
"This whole complex is from New Orleans," says "Michael," a 32-year-old Artisan resident and hurricane survivor who, asked about the house he owned with his wife back home, says wanly, "Gone." He has neither a job nor an I.D. His wife works at a grocery store for extra money, and FEMA's assistance is the only aid they currently receive, he says. The little money that does come in doesn't stay long: "Comes and goes," he says. He doesn't even know how much his rent is. "It go straight to the office," he says matter-of-factly.
Michael seems surprised to hear of the 403 discontinuance and says this is the first he's heard of it.
"We gotta start saving up," he says. "We gotta find somewhere else to go."
Jacks, in turn, is surprised at Michael's surprise. "That has to be an exception," he says. "Because these people have been notified with letters that have been put under their apartment doors by the apartment managers, and then they also know the phone numbers that they could call.
"What we have given ourselves is 15 days to have the jurisdictions, the cities ... notify the applicants that they are eligible and may continue under the 408 individual-assistance program, or that they are ineligible because they didn't turn in paperwork ... or it was determined by utility records in New Orleans, various other records, that they were not a homeowner and that they possibly were even homeless before the storm and did not qualify for any FEMA assistance but had been getting it since September. Those are the people that on July 31 will not be eligible for continued rental assistance from FEMA."
Susan, 25, an Artisan resident who has transitioned to 408, is perhaps better prepared. Her fianc travels back and forth between Texas and Louisiana for work, she says. "Basically they supposed to cut us off on the 18th month after the hurricane," Susan says. "I'm aware of that. I think that was enough time for us to all get ourselves together."
Other people will probably feel differently, like Michael.
"I'm just findin' out," he says. "Some people might know way before me ... some people might still [not] know."
While it's comforting to be surrounded by fellow New Orleanians, Michael says his and their presence at the Artisan has been met with some tension. "They don't want us here," he says. "All the kids fightin' every day ... New Orleans against Texas ... Soon as they straighten us out, I'm goin' back home."
He might soon get part of his wish.
This article originally was published in the San Antonio Current.
- Mark Greenberg
- Gloria and Willie Williams wait to hear if they can afford to stay in the apartment they share in San Antonio after FEMA rental assistance expires at the end of this month.
- Mark Greenberg
- Walter Jenkins swam through Katrina's floodwaters with his daughter, Macey, on his back and survived a few days at the Convention Center before being evacuated to San Antonio, where he remains at least until his FEMA aid runs out.