Like thousands of Orlando residents, Cassandra Zikuda and her fiance, Steve Weil, have had a rough year. Their manufactured home in Audubon Village, off Beggs Road in northwest Orlando, sustained considerable damage from all three hurricanes, leaving them with a tarpaulin-covered roof, interior leaks, water-soaked carpets and drywall damage. The estimated repair cost: more than $3,000. Despite their obvious need, Zikuda says FEMA refused to help because their house is in a family member's name.
When the couple bought their home, Weil was recovering from a bankruptcy due to a divorce, so his retired father put the house in his name until his son could take over the title. Zikuda says she and Weil have paid for everything from the beginning, including the mortgage, utilities and property taxes.
Earlier this year, their homeowners insurance policy was not renewed when it expired. "It's very hard to get insurance for manufactured homes. We called 10 or 20 different places, and they all told us they wouldn't insure a manufactured home," Zikuda says. "But if someone is paying a mortgage, they should be able to insure it."
They almost lost their roof when Charley whipped through town, Zikuda says, so she applied for FEMA assistance and was denied. "After the first hurricane, we contacted FEMA, and they told us that since the house wasn't in our name, my fiance's father would have to apply for the assistance since he was the registered owner." But before Weil's father could apply, Hurricane Frances hit, making matters worse.
"When `Weil's` father called FEMA after Frances, they told him that since he didn't live at this location, our home qualified as a rental property, and that he basically served as a business owner," Zikuda says. "So they told him he could qualify for the FEMA business loan to cover the damages."
From there, more bad news followed. According to FEMA, Weil's father didn't qualify for the business loan because he couldn't prove he was a registered business owner. Zikuda explains, "He didn't have the paperwork because he's not technically a business owner; we just applied that way because FEMA told us it was the only way to get help."
She was even more disappointed to learn that people with much higher incomes were getting hundreds of dollars in FEMA reimbursements for hurricane-related expenditures including generator and chainsaw purchases, and reimbursement for hotel stays. (A Winter Park stylist interviewed for this story received $903 for a chainsaw and generator.)
"Usually, people live in manufactured homes because they have a lower income or some kind of credit problem. And we're the ones who sustain the most damage from these types of storms. Yet because of a technicality, we aren't eligible to receive assistance," Zikuda says.
She adds, "Even though we both work, my fiance has three kids from a previous marriage, and half of his paycheck goes to them. When you're living from paycheck to paycheck, to even have a couple hundred dollars in damage is difficult. It's a terrible situation."
Zikuda says several people in her neighborhood are facing the same dilemma. Lisa Pierce, a spokesperson for FEMA's public affairs center, says that Zikuda's situation is unique, and that although she isn't allowed to administer advice, Zikuda has options. "If someone's been turned down for FEMA assistance, they can always go through the appeal process for another opinion," Pierce says. "In the meantime, if `Zikuda's` house is unlivable, we offer shelters that are clean, safe and dry until she is able to get back on her feet."
Weil's father took out a personal loan from his bank so they could afford to buy the supplies to fix the damages themselves. Despite their stroke of bad luck, Zikuda says she feels grateful they still have a home. "If it wasn't for my fiance's father, our roof would have tarp on it until we somehow won the lottery."
On Oct. 4, FEMA received its millionth registration for disaster assistance from hurricane victims. There have been 21 disaster declarations covering 13 states and Puerto Rico since Hurricane Charley hit Florida on Aug. 13. According to the FEMA website, aid for Florida victims has already surpassed $1 billion.