Friday, November 24, 2017
Tampa Bay Hurricane Guide

At Pasco fairgrounds, an easier time getting Irma relief

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DADE CITY — The day Florida launched its Hurricane Irma emergency food benefits program, David and Deidre Edwards were among the first to sign up. Not only did the family lose all their food in the five-day power outage that followed the storm, but Deidre Edwards also lost her cleaning job.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: People wait hours for food assistance in wake of Hurricane Irma (Oct. 9, 2017)

But in the weeks that followed, as friends and media reported on hours-long lines and unorganized staff at "Food for Florida" distribution sites, the Hudson couple began to question whether it was worth the hassle of showing up Monday morning at the Pasco County Fairgrounds to get that help.

"In the end I’m definitely glad we decided to come out," said Deidre Edwards, 34. "It wasn’t the madhouse we kept hearing about."

It only took them about 20 minutes with a Florida Department of Children and Families employee to receive a $300 federal Supplemental Food Assistance Program "D-SNAP" card.

"When I heard about how crowded it’s been I didn’t know if it was really worth it ...," Deidre Edwards said. "But at the same time I knew we could really use the money."

"We lost everything in the fridge and were without power or well water for five days," said David Edwards, 44. "We filled up garbage cans, anything we could find with water."

Their experience was starkly different from those who have applied for help at the past eight events held throughout the state. Reports of recipients suffering heat exhaustion while waiting in line led U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to request additional resources from the Department of Agriculture last month.

HURRICANE IRMA RELIEF: Click here for a list of "Food for Florida" sites.

By Nov. 1, DCF reported that nearly 4.7 million Floridians had received D-SNAP benefits, totaling about $1.3 billion in federal dollars.

The fairgrounds site opened Sunday, and DCF said more than 12,500 households had received benefits by 5 p.m. Monday. The Pasco distribution site on State Road 52 will continue registering and distributing benefits from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Wednesday.

Still, Pasco County officials told the state that 32,000 households need help. It didn’t help the situation when county officials cancelled plans last month to open the first distribution center at the Land O’Lakes Recreation Center. They feared too much congestion on Collier Parkway.

Nicole Beltran was among the hundreds who showed up in Land O’Lakes unaware the event had been cancelled. Beltran, 20, said she was more than willing to come back Monday to help replace items she said were damaged by power surges after Irma swept past the Dade City home she shares with her grandparents. They can now replace their TV, air conditioner and stove.

"The whole process only took about 10 minutes," she said. "I was amazed."

Most of those who arrived at Monday’s distribution had pre-registered, which helped keep lines moving, workers said. Still, everyone who registers online or in person has to complete an in-person interview to confirm their residency and prevent fraud.

Rodney and Stephanie Smith said it was worth the nearly 3 hour drive from their home in Titusville to get $1,800 in emergency food stamps. Irma knocked out power to the couple’s home for about a week, and everything inside their two refrigerators and freezer had to be thrown out.

But a metal rod in her back makes it difficult for Stephanie Smith to stand for long periods of time, she said. Instead of signing up for the first distribution events, they took a gamble to visit one of the last ones and avoid the crowds.

"We’re seniors with a limited income, so losing that much food took a big hit," she said. "We kept hearing it was a nightmare, that lines were horrendous, so it wasn’t until our friend told us the later distributions were a lot less crowded that we decided this was something we could handle."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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