FORT MYERS, Fla. — Volunteers tossed cases of water off the back of a truck from Tennessee outside of First Assembly Cornerstone Church. Inside, a group of women filled to-go containers with macaroni and cheese, pulled pork, sandwich buns, and corn.
It had been a week since Hurricane Ian devastated this Gulf Coast city, uprooting decades-old trees and snapping power lines. And as President Joe Biden made a midweek visit to survey the damage by helicopter, some residents of the predominantly Black Dunbar neighborhood were still without power, continuing to tarp their roofs and load their cars with water and hot meals in Florida’s scorching heat.
Hurricane relief has poured into this neighborhood from churches and nonprofit organizations across the country, residents say. Folks have been flowing to a local community center, where the American Red Cross has staffed a distribution site. One woman drove 45 minutes for pads. And parents are taking any diapers, regardless of size.
But Dunbar residents said they have yet to see the federal disaster relief workers who are supposed to provide the recovery assistance many need to start rebuilding their lives.
“We haven’t heard from them yet. We haven’t seen anybody from FEMA,” said Gregory Ford, pastor at First Assembly, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He would recognize the agency’s disaster survivor assistance teams, he said, typically clad in jackets with “FEMA” stamped in bold white letters on the back.
In the first days after the storm, Black residents of Fort Myers said they feared that hurricane aid would bypass their neighborhoods. The city is deeply divided by race, data shows, with white and Black neighborhoods separated by railroad tracks. Although Dunbar sits further inland than wealthier, waterfront communities that bore the brunt of last week’s flooding, brutal winds from the near-Category 5 storm left many residents’ homes wrecked.
On Monday, after Capital B wrote about the concerns of Dunbar residents, FEMA spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg tweeted that the agency is providing resources to the community.
“We are aware of the needs in Dunbar and sent teams to the area yesterday,” Rothenberg wrote. “Our @FEMA disaster survivor assistance teams are going door to door again today in the community.”
The following day, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in a press release that the state’s Division of Emergency Management had delivered water and ice to a recreational complex near Dunbar, along with a 6,000-gallon mobile refueling station.
FEMA is tasked with providing assistance to disaster victims when state and local emergency agencies lack the resources to respond to large-scale emergencies. While state and local governments are responsible for handling needs such as removing fallen trees, FEMA typically serves longer-term disaster recovery, such as providing temporary housing and funding for home repairs.
In response to Hurricane Ian, FEMA workers have been on the ground helping Florida residents with applications and answering questions about available assistance, said Jeremy Edwards, FEMA’s press secretary, in an email. FEMA teams deployed to Dunbar on Sunday, he said, and the next day to Harlem Heights, a nearby low-income community where many residents’ homes remain severely flooded, according to local news reports.
“We understand the road to recovery can be as long as it is frustrating, but we are here to help, and we will continue to do everything in our power to help all Floridians recover from this disaster,” Edwards said.
Reports have shown a pattern of racial inequities in FEMA’s past disaster relief efforts. While some Dunbar residents said they have not seen FEMA workers in their neighborhood, they noted it’s possible their paths simply didn’t cross. Maybe the teams stopped by before they returned from evacuation, some thought.
When Misty Scott’s power cut out during Hurricane Ian, her family left for a hotel in Fort Lauderdale. One of her daughters has chronic asthma and needed her nebulizer. She’s caring for her girls as best she can. “They know mommy can only do so much,” said Scott, 37. Since the storm, she has thrown out food that went bad without a working refrigerator. Her anxiety, she said, is mounting.
She hadn’t heard of FEMA workers in Dunbar, where she’s from. Still, on every corner, she said, she sees free food and water for those in need. “You feel the love and respect for one another in the air.”
Jackie Boyd and her three neighbors in Dunbar are sharing one generator. It has been running since last week. In the meantime, they are relying on pop-up disaster relief stations, like the one at the church, for food and water.
“We’ll get by just like this,” said Boyd, 59.
In Dunbar, and other Black communities in Fort Myers, people are also asking for places to shower, wash clothes, and access Wi-Fi to fill out FEMA assistance applications, said Keesha Allen-Thomas, an administrator with the Quality Life Center of Southwest Florida. “I have parents that are driving by asking for child care because they have to go back to work.”
Allen-Thomas also had not seen FEMA teams.
Around the block at the church, the 500-meal lunch supply had run out. Volunteers had to turn one young man around.
“Dinner is coming at 6,” they told him.