WILMINGTON — There are at least 30 families in Wilmington still displaced, seeking help and rehabilitation, over four months after Hurricane Ida destroyed their homes.
The Delaware Poor People’s Campaign, along with representatives from state and local government and organizations, hosted a virtual town hall Thursday night for those families who still have questions. Mainly, those who spoke demanded to know what is taking so long for help.
“I don’t know if y’all know what it’s like to have to climb out a window with your kids,” one survivor named Charice said. She lived in the Claymont Street Apartments in Wilmington for seven years before it was flooded.
“I held my breath too long. I’ve been split up from my kids. I haven’t seen my kids … My daughter is on suicide watch. Me and my kids were soaking wet, drenched and nasty, dirty water was all over our body and they didn’t have water for us to drink. They didn’t have towels or nothing for us. They didn’t get us that stuff until the following day.”
Many opted to remain anonymous as they voiced their frustrations and shared their stories over the last four months since the hurricane hit on Sept. 1.
Another woman, who lived in the same apartment complex as Charice, said she was “fortunate enough” to have a family member to stay with and only has one child to care for. But she doesn’t feel fortunate – she is walking on pins and needles, wondering when she’ll have to find somewhere else to go.
“The stress of it all has been so great that I actually landed myself in the hospital for two-and-a-half days with a blood pressure of 200 over 119,” she said. “I was just on the cusp of having a stroke or heart attack. And I’m a single parent and I have one child, and if I’m not here, then who’s going to be here with her?”
Several other survivors expressed compounding issues with behavioral or physical health issues either caused or worsened by the hurricane. One woman identified as Ida Survivor 5, was unable to be rescued from her apartment, and had to wait for the flood to be over before she could escape with her two sons. She said she can’t work because she has developed suicidal behavioral health issues.
“I stayed in that building that night of the flood,” she said. “I’m not from here. I don’t have parents, I don’t have family. So therefore me and my children had nowhere to go. My car was destroyed. There was nowhere for me to go. They turned the electric off in the building and we had to stay there. I had to stay there the whole next day until I could get someone to come get my children.”
Another woman from the Claymont Street Apartments named Ebony, recalled her children and her neighbors screaming, retreating to higher floors, as six and a half feet of water rushed into the building.
“It felt like it was going to blow up,” she said. “We were so scared to go out in the hallways to get rescued by the boats because of all the electrical cords and we didn’t know if we were going to get electrocuted or not.”
Ebony said she brings her daughter to a counselor every week to help her with behavioral health issues. An “emotional wreck,” she isn’t sure her daughter will be able to graduate from high school.
The virtual town hall lasted for nearly two and a half hours, emotional at every turn, and even angry and heated at times as victims and advocates roared their frustrations.
Stacy Henry, who has spearheaded a volunteer movement to help residents affected by the flooding, was on the verge of tears as she explained to the panel that every person that is still homeless from the flood, is broken. She said that leaders have had months to enact solutions, but many residents have already given up.
“Thank you for your solutions, your comments, your apologies, but I can truly say when I sat with these people, and cried with these people, and held their hands and gave them hope, none of these solutions were available,” Ms. Henry said.
“And us as leaders, we have to put ourselves in their shoes. We cannot do business as usual and we cannot continue to think “they’ll make it.’ What if they don’t make it because some folks just didn’t see this as a priority? They’re not asking for money or asking for sympathy. They are asking for someone to understand what it is like to call and call and call, and no one seems to think that this is an urgent issue.”
Andrea Brown-Clarke, a member of the Delaware Poor People’s Campaign’s Coordinating Committee and co-moderator for Thursday night’s meeting, said PPC and other coordinating members realize there was a disconnect in getting resources and relief to those in need, and the meeting is not to speak for them, but to uplift their voices.
“This meeting was not presented to say that you are going to walk away with a solution at this moment. But it was to connect you directly with those that can provide those solutions instead of you leaving a voicemail or reaching out to an agency and feeling that you are not getting a response,” Ms. Brown-Clarke said. “We connected those strategic decision makers and stakeholders to be able to hear your direct concerns right now.”
Coby Owens, campaign advocate for Network Delaware and co-moderator for the town hall, said ultimately, Hurricane Ida exposed significant problems in three areas: disaster response, social services and affordable housing.
Cheyenne Miller, the campaign manager for Building People Power, a campaign under the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, said they would not be leaving the meeting without solutions.
“We are continually told by all of the public housing authorities and social services and everyone else, that there’s never enough affordable housing,” Ms. Miller said.
“It is important for us to start looking at how we can use those monies to pay for market-rate housing that these residents may not be able to afford on their income alone… We’ve already put lots of dollars into creating unaffordable housing across the state, so why can’t we put a little bit of money aside for however many families there are to actually ensure that those people are able to find permanent state housing?”
Eugene Young, of the Delaware State Housing Authority, said getting people into affordable housing is a short-term solution, but the real long-term issue is making affordable housing available in the first place.
“There are homes in the city right now that are in disarray and in disrepair right around the block,” Mr. Young said. “We are in the process of putting our money where our mouth is in getting these houses developed so people can have long-term housing. Because the problem is there’s not enough long-term, stable housing. You walk by all these dilapidated homes just for people to say, ‘I still need a place to stay.’ It’s the development process we are in right now.”
Ray Fitzgerald, executive director of the Wilmington Housing Authority, noted that the housing authorities are not set up to provide emergency housing, but are set up to take care of long-term housing solutions. However, new resources like the emergency housing vouchers, still have an application process that takes time to go through.
“(Hurricane Ida victims) are eligible for these vouchers and we are expediting that process,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “Wilmington Housing Authority has a number of long-term vacancies in the city and our goal over the next year is to create transitional housing and work with state partners and city partners to make the units available for people when they are in crisis. But again, they are in disrepair right now.”
While plans for long-term solutions are promising, temperatures are dropping now, and those without a place to stay are in desperate need of immediate assistance.
‘It’s too much’
Another man, identified only as Ida Survivor 10, said he did receive financial assistance immediately after Hurricane Ida. He said he attended a workshop on Thatcher Street in Wilmington a few days after the storm where filled out forms for housing and hotel vouchers, but never heard back from any agency.
“I just spent the last of my money on a hotel room for a week, so once next Wednesday at 11 o’clock comes, I’m done,” he said. “I really just want to know, for now, is there somebody here that can help me with a hotel voucher, or an extended stay at the hotel that I’m at now or anything like that? I won’t get too caught up in the emotions because it’s too much.”
Ms. T. Lewis, another Ida victim, was seen attending the meeting from her vehicle Thursday night, which she has been living out of for several days now.
“For the last three nights, I have not stayed in my room (at a hotel) because they have roaches. They’re crawling out the toilet,” Ms. Lewis said. “No one else on this panel sleeps in a hotel with roaches and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to. So therefore I have to sleep in my vehicle.”
Ms. Miller asked for commitments from state and city partners and organizations on the teleconference with access and control over American Rescue Plan funds to help homeless Hurricane Ida victims afford the plethora of market-rate houses and apartments throughout Wilmington while affordable housing is not yet available.
‘That’s on me’
Molly Magarik, Cabinet secretary for the Delaware Department of Health & Social Services, agreed that there simply are not enough places to house people, and that some hotels, even with open rooms, won’t accept vouchers.
“It’s a matter of trying to keep people where they are and then trying to find a room that’s willing to take money from the state,” Ms. Magarik said. “We’ve had many hotel owners tell us ‘No, thank you.’ Tourism is back. So I wish I could say we’ve got a certain number of rooms at this or that hotel, but it’s really a lot of calling and reaching out to individual hotel owners, and then trying to ask to please take our money.”
However, Ms. Magarik said there is now a case manager dedicated specifically to housing efforts for Ida victims and asked that she receive the names and contact information for everyone in the meeting so that DHSS can get them into housing immediately.
“We should have done this a long time ago, and that’s on me, and I apologize that we did not have that one dedicated person and for the additional pain that has caused,” she said.
Mr. Young also stepped up at the end of the meeting and asked for victims’ names and information so that no one else “slips through the cracks.”
State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker sat “strategically quietly” to ensure she could “hear (the victims’) hearts.”
“Some of this, many thought had been resolved,” she said. “Hearing this pain in the city where I was born and raised is unacceptable. I shall be working with the survivors however I can assist. It’s unacceptable and I am here to be a resource.”
Emergency housing assistance from DHSS is provided through the Division of State Service Centers and can be reached at 302-255-9875.
Locations and phone numbers for emergency shelters and transitional housing can be found here.