HOUSTON — Outside Rachel Roberts' house, a skeleton sits on a chair next to the driveway, a skeleton child on its lap, an empty cup in its hand and a sign at its feet that reads "Waiting on FEMA."
It's a Halloween reminder that, for many, getting help to recover from Hurricane Harvey remains a long, uncertain journey.
"It's very frustrating," said Roberts, 44, who put together the display after waiting three weeks for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send someone to look at her flood-damaged home in southwest Houston. "I think it's beautiful how much we've all come together, and that's wonderful, but I think there's a lot of mess-ups, too."
Outside the White House this month, President Donald Trump boasted about the federal relief efforts. "In Texas and in Florida, we get an A-plus," he said. FEMA officials say that they are successfully dealing with enormous challenges posed by an onslaught of closely spaced disasters, unlike anything the agency has seen in years. But on the ground, flooded residents and local officials have a far more critical view.
According to interviews with dozens of storm victims, one of the busiest hurricane seasons in years has overwhelmed federal disaster officials. As a result, the government's response in the two biggest affected states — Texas and Florida — has been scattershot: effective in dealing with immediate needs, but unreliable and at times inadequate in handling the aftermath, as thousands of people face unusually long delays in getting basic disaster assistance.
FEMA has taken weeks to inspect damaged homes and apartments, delaying flood victims' attempts to rebuild their lives and properties. People who call the agency's helpline at 1-800-621-3362 have waited on hold for two, three or four hours before they even speak to a FEMA representative.
Nearly two months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, and six weeks after Hurricane Irma hit Florida on Sept. 10, residents are still waiting for FEMA payments, still fuming after the agency denied their applications for assistance and still trying to resolve glitches and disputes that have slowed and complicated their ability to receive federal aid.
Brian and Monica Smith, whose home in the northern Houston suburb of Kingwood had 2 feet of water inside after Harvey, said they had received more help from their church, their neighbors and their relatives than from FEMA. A $500 payment from FEMA to help them with their immediate needs was delayed by three weeks. And they waited 34 days for the agency to inspect the damage to their home, pushing back their repairs.
"You feel abandoned," Brian Smith, 42, said. "You feel like it came and went, and everybody's focused on the storm in Florida and now in Puerto Rico."
Ron and Rita Perreault, a retired couple whose South Florida mobile home was damaged by the flooded Imperial River, call FEMA twice a day to check on the status of their application and inspection. Rita Perreault said she had spent so many hours on the phone on hold that she learned, as other callers have, to put the phone on speaker and go about her day.
"I thought I was going to get brain cancer," Rita Perreault said. "They give you the runaround."
One of the most significant problems FEMA has had in Texas and Florida is the backlog in getting damaged properties inspected. Contract inspectors paid by the agency must first inspect and verify the damage in order for residents to be approved for thousands of dollars in aid. FEMA does not have enough inspectors to reduce the backlog, and the average wait for an inspection is 45 days in Texas and about a month in Florida, agency officials said.
The officials, including Brock Long, FEMA administrator, acknowledged the long waits for both inspections and phone assistance. They said they were in the process of hiring hundreds of people in the next few weeks, including additional contract inspectors. They attribute the delays to "staffing challenges" after three major hurricanes in quick succession struck the Gulf Coast and the Southeast, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, as well as the devastating wildfires in California.
"Resources are stretched, particularly when it comes to inspections," Long said. "Obviously it's frustrating."
The wait times for the helpline and inspections far exceed those during past disasters.
People who called FEMA in the immediate aftermath of Katrina waited an average of 10 minutes before speaking with a representative, and weeks later that wait dropped to five minutes, according to a 2006 report by the inspector general's office for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA. In addition, the report stated, the agency has historically tried to complete the entire inspection-and-approval process within 10 days after an application is filed. After Hurricane Rita in 2005, many home inspections were completed less than two weeks after homeowners applied.
But given the extraordinary impact of three major storms, many experts say FEMA's relief efforts deserve high marks. "I think they have done a terrific job," said Paul M. Rosen, who worked in the Obama administration as the former chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security. "You just have to tune out the political noise and let them do their jobs."
In 2005, FEMA became the face of the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and the agency's poor handling of the disaster in New Orleans led to the resignation of Michael D. Brown, the director at the time. FEMA has since improved its image, and former federal officials praised its response in recent weeks to a staggering string of hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters. Overall, about 8,200 people in FEMA's nearly 10,000-person workforce are deployed in the field, responding to more than 20 natural disasters around the country.
"The whole response-and-recovery industry is maxed out," said Michael Coen, former chief of staff at FEMA in the Obama administration.
The Trump administration has been publicly criticized for its response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. While the problems there with power, gas and water are far worse than those in the continental United States, FEMA's response to Harvey and Irma has also quietly frustrated flood victims on the mainland, from low-income neighborhoods to trailer parks to wooded suburban enclaves. Some have turned to their elected officials to complain and ask for help navigating the multiagency disaster bureaucracy, including FEMA's federal insurance arm, which manages the National Flood Insurance Program.
In Kingwood, Tom and Lisa Slagle asked Sen. Ted Cruz's office for help after a $25,000 flood-insurance payment they were counting on was delayed for more than a month. "This has been more a disaster, trying to deal with insurance, than it was when our house flooded," said Lisa Slagle, 49, a retired Houston firefighter.
In South Florida, officials in Collier County, which includes Naples, are waiting for FEMA RVs known as travel trailers, which flooded residents can use as temporary housing. Only 15 of the trailers have been approved by FEMA statewide since Wednesday. "It's a process, a long, arduous process," said William L. McDaniel Jr., a Collier County commissioner. "But it can't come quick enough."
In some ways, hard-hit areas in Texas and Florida have made progress since Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. In Texas alone, nearly 7.5 million cubic yards of debris has been collected and more than 120,000 people have visited FEMA's disaster recovery centers. The agency has supplied money, housing and other resources to residents as well as local governments. In Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, FEMA has provided about $2 billion in individual assistance to residents.
Yet in other ways, the rebuilding seems to have only just started. Three shelters remain open in Texas, and Florida closed its last one Saturday. As part of a FEMA program, 61,135 people in Texas are staying in hotels. Some residents are living in their moldy, half-repaired or even condemned homes and apartments. Other residents remain uprooted. Shirlene Hryhorchuk, a high school teacher in the East Texas town of Deweyville, sleeps several nights each week on a cot in her home-economics classroom while her house undergoes repairs.
In the days after Irma tore through Florida, Ernestino Leon, 48, met and shook hands with Gov. Rick Scott when the governor toured the emergency shelter where he was staying. Leon works in golf-course maintenance and came to the United States 30 years ago from Oaxaca, one of Mexico's poorest states. His house in the Gulf Coast town of Bonita Springs is a torn-out shell surrounded by piles of debris and the few chairs he and his wife, Lucia, could salvage.
"He asked me if I liked this country and I say yes," Leon said of Scott. "That's why I'm here. I pay taxes. I'm a U.S. citizen. He told me not to worry and said that help would be on the way."
Leon is still waiting for much of that help. Five weeks after asking FEMA for assistance, the Leons were in limbo. They moved out of a shelter Saturday and into a hotel, while waiting for the agency to provide $10,000 to repair their home, a process tied up by a delayed home inspection. "This won't be enough," Leon said of the still-awaited money.
In Houston, Tim Wainright, 47, filed with FEMA on Aug. 28 after floodwaters damaged two bedrooms, but more than 50 days later, he and his wife are still waiting for an inspection.
"My hope is that they're busy with people that really, really need their assistance," he said. "By now our walls are painted. All our drywall is back in place. If they came by, they wouldn't have anything to inspect."
Some residents are angry after being turned down by FEMA for assistance, often for reasons that they dispute. Of the 2.9 million applications for individual assistance the agency has received after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, FEMA has denied 23 percent of them — 678,160 — with the majority of those denials in Florida, where 432,000 applications out of 1.8 million have been rejected after Irma.
FEMA officials say the number of denials in Florida is high because the agency determined that many homes were not significantly damaged by the storm.