Robert Majors walked out of Montgomery County’s aid center for storm victims on Thursday afternoon with a bag of donated snacks, a Red Cross disaster-relief kit, and raw emotion in his voice.
It had been a week since the floodwaters forced Majors, his fiancée, and their five kids to flee their rental home in Bridgeport.
“We were just told that we might not be able to go back for months,” said Majors, 36. “We don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Ten days after the remnants of Hurricane Ida tore through the Northeast — and left behind more than $100 million in damage in Pennsylvania — many people on the hardest-hit blocks throughout the region had nowhere to live.
By late last week there still wasn’t a complete count, but the devastation was clear. In Bridgeport and Norristown alone, where at least 230 houses were uninhabitable, 800 people had been displaced, officials said. Members of dozens of other households in Montgomery County also needed lodging.
Chester County’s housing crisis hotline had gotten 152 calls and the county was providing hotel rooms to about 100 people, but the total number displaced remained unclear, as local municipalities continued to assess the damage, a county spokesperson said.
In Coatesville, 80 homes had been condemned, but some only temporarily. Downingtown officials said about 300 families there were affected by the storm, though couldn’t estimate how many had lost their housing — partly because water flooded the borough office and destroyed its computers, said borough manager Steve Sullins.
Donors and volunteers have made colossal efforts, working with local governments to get people housing, food, and money, and to clean out homes in the last 10 days. But it wasn’t until late Friday that President Joe Biden approved the formal disaster declaration that state officials had been seeking, the most important step in unleashing aid.
It ended more than a week of limbo for the region, including those whose homes need to be repaired before they can be occupied.
“We are depending on FEMA, we are depending on PEMA, to help us get the funding to mitigate this,” said Coatesville’s city manager, James Logan. “I’m just being very frank — the city will not be able to fund this without their help.”
The declaration means residents can apply online at disasterassistance.gov for federal aid for temporary housing, home repairs, and other disaster-related expenses. It is available to people whose losses aren’t covered by insurance after they fill out an application and their home damage is documented.
But the red tape required to get there still had many people distraught and desperate, wondering when help would arrive.
“We’re uprooted,” said Kimberly Capparella, 51, who said she and her husband had paid thousands for hotel stays and food so far for their family of five. Surging floodwaters ruined the fully furnished basement and first floor of the Norristown home they’ve lived in for 30 years, she said.
“I got nothing from nobody yet,” Capparella, a hair stylist, said Thursday, choking up as tears welled in her eyes. “I’m hoping from FEMA.”
A ‘very slow’ process
The storm’s flooding and tornadoes hit an unusually widespread area, leaving thousands to figure out cleanup and insurance. Pockets of Montgomery and Chester Counties seemed to have the most displacement — in many cases, in lower-income neighborhoods where residents are predominantly renters.
Hundreds more who were able to stay in their homes were also facing cleanup. Repairs can be particularly tough for flood victims, said Bucks County emergency services director Audrey Kenny, because tornadoes are more likely to be covered by insurance. In Bucks, for instance, 131 of the more than 600 affected homes had major damage, though only 11 families were displaced.
“These are very personal and difficult catastrophes for people to work through,” she said. “I mean, they’re knocking out basements, getting rid of anything destroyed from the water and the things that are in the water, river mud. There are things that cannot be restored back to what they were, they can’t be brought back.”
New Jersey and New York, also hit by Ida, received disaster declarations from the White House on Monday. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, in Bridgeport on Wednesday, said he didn’t know why they had gone through the process more quickly, though State Rep. Tim Briggs (D., Montgomery) said he understood it was because a flyover assessment of New Jersey proved the damage.
Wolf requested the declaration Wednesday — his emergency management director said Pennsylvania couldn’t have sent its request sooner because it took days on the ground to assess the damage.
“Pennsylvanians will now have opportunities to receive financial assistance,” Wolf said Friday evening after Biden’s approval, “which will go a long way toward replacing and restoring their property.”
Local officials said it was much-needed. A Montgomery County spokesperson said officials were “doing everything we can” but were “limited” until the federal approval. In Bridgeport, borough manager Keith Truman questioned why the declaration was “lagging behind” the other states.
Many praised the volunteers, Red Cross workers, local and school district leaders, and nonprofits who pulled together to help those affected, but recognized their assistance couldn’t last.
In Coatesville, for instance, volunteers were not allowed inside some homes after Friday because of mold concerns, said Jen Manthey, flood relief coordinator for Brandywine Valley Active Aging. And the city cannot afford to fund long-term housing or rebuilding for affected residents, said Logan.
The story was similar in Bridgeport, where volunteers helped clear 260 metric tons of debris from homes and streets in under a week, and the police chief said donors paid to put 130 people in hotels.
“Without that aid I cannot imagine how our streets, as well as the insides of the many flood-ravaged structures, would still look at this point,” but the borough and residents need the federal aid to get homes repaired, Truman said.
Bridgeport Police Chief Todd Bereda said Friday that the frustration among residents waiting for assistance had been palpable.
“[The aid] is imperative for a place that has a lot of low-income folks,” he said. “They don’t have a lot of excess monies. They might not have light at the end of the tunnel.”
The time between when a disaster strikes, an emergency is declared, and the aid starts flowing often takes days, and progress sometimes occurs in “spurts,” said Stephen Strader, a Villanova University geography professor who studies hazards and disasters.
“It’s always a very slow and frustrating process,” he said.
» READ MORE: In Pa., assessing damage from Ida, county by county
Some state lawmakers said Pennsylvania needs to create a disaster relief fund to provide immediate support to residents before or in the absence of federal assistance, a step Rep. Kathleen Tomlinson (R., Bucks) has proposed.
“The whole emergency natural disaster process needs to be reworked,” said Briggs. “Until local communities, counties, and the state create funds, or budget funds are allowed to be used for relief efforts, we have to rely on local churches and nonprofits.”
Now that federal aid is coming, residents may get some measure of relief. But it will still be a long recovery process, experts said, and at least a short wait after they submit their applications.
Uncertainty and waiting
In the meantime, uncertainty about the future was sinking in for many. There were few hotel vacancies near towns like Bridgeport and Coatesville. Chester County was asking landlords about any available rental properties.
“Everybody’s biggest fear is the long run and what’s next,” said Anthony Hunt, a Bridgeport resident who was cleaning out his home last week. “It’s literally half a borough looking to start over.”
On Thursday, Elizabeth Thomas and her cousin Jennifer Smith walked into the Montgomery County resource center in Norristown, Smith clutching an orange folder of her own research.
Thomas’ family has lived in her Conshohocken home since 1963, the year she was born. Now, she can’t go back, and she has to figure out how to get it remediated and inspected — and how to pay for repairs and new appliances, including a heater and water heater. She’s been sleeping on Smith’s couch since Tuesday, and her daughter is staying in Philadelphia.
“It’s been very hard for everybody. A lot of people don’t have nowhere to go,” said Thomas, 57. “Stressed and worried and trying to figure out stuff on our own. That’s what everybody’s doing.”
Smith reassured her cousin that they would get it figured out and she could stay as long as she needed.
Majors, his fiancée, and their five children — ages 10 months to 13 years — had paid for a hotel room until Saturday. They lost both their cars in the flood, had to buy clothes at Target, and have been living off takeout and microwave meals.
On Friday, their landlord had finished repairs on their Bridgeport home and they hoped they could return. But borough officials told them it needed more work to be inhabitable, Majors said, so they reluctantly extended their hotel stay.
They’re worried about how families on the block are going to survive if they can’t go home. Theymoved from Pottstown a year ago, said Majors, a construction worker and truck driver.
And the hardest part, they said, is protecting their children from the trauma. As they left the county resource center Thursday with few answers, Majors reached over and wiped his fiancée’s teary eyes above her mask.
“What are we supposed to do?” he said. “It’s been hard. It’s been rough.”
Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.