(TNS) - More than a year since Hurricane Irma blew through Orlando, hundreds of low-income families are still dealing with the aftermath: Punctured roofs, downed fences and infestations of mold.
Now, those families will be the beneficiaries of a new Florida Department of Economic Opportunity program that aims to help those who were most affected by the hurricane — and still need help. The program will offer $616 million in aid to Floridians and open 10 Rebuild Florida centers across the state to help families sign up for assistance.
Orange County, one of the 10 counties most impacted by Irma, will get a Rebuild Florida center at 6101 Chancellor Drive, Suite 100-B, in Orlando. The center, opening Wednesday, will focus on helping families get registered through the program, said Erin Gillespie, a spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Gillespie said the program, which is in partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is designed to provide assistance to any unmet need after all other funding sources dry up, which is why the money comes in typically a year after a natural disaster. It will target the most vulnerable populations first, including the elderly, people with disabilities and families with young children.
The other nine centers will open in Brevard County at 297 Barnes Blvd. in Rockledge, as well as in Fort Myers, Winter Haven, Jacksonville, Naples, Marathon, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, which will have two centers. About 80 percent of the total funds will go to the 10 most-affected counties.
In Orange County, 4,443 insurance claims related to Hurricane Irma were still open with the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation as of last month — the fifth-highest figure in Florida. Locally, hundreds of families are just now beginning repairs after months of sporting large blue tarps on their roofs.
Katharine Purnell, executive director of the Orange County Long Term Recovery Group, said her group was established after the Federal Emergency Management Agency left the area, handing off long-term recovery. According to an assessment done by the group in August, 565 local families need $6.6 million worth of repairs.
“It’s sad — many of these homes have holes in the roof and mold in the homes now,” Purnell said. “Typically [the families affected] don’t have insurance or have very little insurance or were denied.”
The challenges involved in paying for extensive repairs — and securing insurance coverage — is why many low-income families have put off addressing the damages, instead opting for temporary solutions such as tarps.
But as summer storms rolled in, tarps stopped holding up.
“I’ve seen pictures where the tarps have been blown or shredded, and the water damage is what’s causing the severe mold,” Purnell said. This month so far, the group has been able to put in two new roofs, and it has another six pending roof repairs lined up.
In the Orlando area, roof damage was the most common result of Irma’s wrath. Of the more than 500 people the group surveyed, Purnell said, 205 said they had major roof damage. Of those, 116 said they have mold in their homes.
A quarter of all those surveyed live in single-parent homes, and 20 percent are disabled. The Long Term Recovery Group, like Rebuild Florida, aims to help vulnerable groups first. It will work with Rebuild Florida to refer people in need of financial assistance, Purnell said.
“We are working to help those who don’t have the means to help themselves,” she said.
To register for the program, visit RebuildFlorida.gov or call 844-833-1010. Eligible Floridians have until Dec. 23 to register.
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