Sonoma County fire survivors struggle to secure aid from FEMA
The first night of the October firestorm was a harrowing experience for Robert Percy, who ran frantically from door to door urging his neighbors to flee their northwest Santa Rosa mobile home park before he grabbed a garden hose and doused flames to stop their spread as best he could.
Percy’s home at Coddingtown Mobile Estates survived as the fires that night and over the ensuing weeks destroyed more than 5,100 homes in Sonoma County and killed 24 people.
But the disaster dealt Percy a severe personal blow. He lost his right eye as a result of the firefight, he said, and he now finds himself among numerous fire survivors fighting to receive sufficient help from the federal government.
The 64-year-old retired handyman remained in his neighborhood Oct. 9 and beyond, snuffing out embers and trimming trees to prevent the inferno from claiming any more mobile homes, several of which were already destroyed.
Somewhere along the way, Percy and his doctors believe, his shoes or his clothing came into contact with a dangerous chemical. That toxin likely got onto Percy’s hands and, about a week after the fires first broke out, began to cause him searing pain.
“I touched my eyes, and my eyes just started burning,” Percy recalled while sitting in a lawn chair behind his mobile home Thursday. “I tried to wash it out. (But) that stuff, whatever it was, went straight to my optical nerve and straight to my brain and knocked me for a loop. I laid in here, on and off for 16 days - most of the time passed out. My neighbors thought I was already in the hospital. I wasn’t.”
Eventually, a friend from Oregon who was concerned about Percy’s whereabouts drove down to Santa Rosa and found him languishing on the floor of his mobile home. The friend took Percy straight to the emergency room at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where doctors treated him for several weeks, focusing in particular on his afflicted eye.
“They tried to save the eye, but it was a goner,” Percy said.
The eye was replaced with a plastic substitute until he can get a prosthetic, a three-day procedure slated to start this weekend. But his doctor said he needs to remain in a sanitary environment to avoid possible infections, and his home - damaged by smoke and too close to potentially harmful particles and chemicals lingering from the fires - won’t suffice.
Percy turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance in December once he was out of the hospital. He said an inspector visited his home - without going inside - and FEMA later told him he was ineligible for housing assistance because his home was habitable.
So Percy enlisted the resources of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, which worked with FEMA to get him housed in a Santa Rosa motel for two months. Percy and the legal nonprofit are still hoping to move him back into a FEMA-assisted living situation, or at least receive some form of financial help to get his mobile home back into a safe condition.
His case is one of about 100 FEMA assistance appeals Legal Aid is handling, and advocates suspect the total need could be even higher.
“We think people are not understanding that they can appeal,” said Ronit Rubinoff, Legal Aid’s executive director. “When the government tells them no, there’s a tendency to just take that answer and say, ‘Oh, I’m out of luck.’ And it’s wrong. That’s not true, especially in entitlement programs when we know there’s these big bureaucracies at work, and denial rates are high and appeal rates are usually quite successful.”
FEMA officials said they cannot comment on specific cases, so they declined to discuss Percy’s claim. But FEMA cannot duplicate any benefits already provided by a victim’s insurance company or another government agency, and oftentimes missing documents can help the agency reassess its initial determination, officials said.
“Each and every person that does not receive any assistance has the right to appeal,” said Michelle Gonzalez, a FEMA emergency management and recovery specialist. “Even the answer to that initial appeal could be appealable as well.”
Additionally, fire victims must demonstrate through documents that losses, damages or deaths for which they’re requesting assistance were directly related to the disaster at hand, said FEMA spokesman Frank Mansell.
In Sonoma County, FEMA received more than 16,600 registrations for assistance related to the October wildfires, although the total includes some number of fraudulent registrations or multiple people registering for the same household, Mansell said. The agency has so far approved nearly 3,360 applications in the county and authorized more than ?$5.1 million for housing assistance as well as more than $4 million for other needs, according to Mansell.