Some Morehouse residents run into trouble with FEMA over eligibility

Friday, June 24, 2011
Bill Beck, right, shows Morehouse mayor Pete Leija the progress of the remodeling inside his home Wednesday, June 22, 2011 in Morehouse, Mo. Beck has lived in Morehouse for the past 61 years. Beck has to completely remodel the inside of his home after floodwater damaged the interior in May. (Laura Simon)

MOREHOUSE, Mo. -- Beulah and Junior Ray Parker lost their home and most everything they owned when the floods of 2011 washed out much of Morehouse.

Nearly two months later, the elderly couple is staying in the one-room living quarters of a former firehouse in Sikeston, Mo., just thankful they're no longer cramped in a 17-foot camper beneath an ancient oak tree in their backyard.

"It's one room, but it's a large room," Beulah Parker, 75, said of her temporary accommodations. "We have a shower and a bathroom and small kitchenette."

While she has lived in her mobile home on Morehouse's South Madison Street for 20 years, she hasn't been able to collect a dime in Federal Emergency Management Agency home repair assistance.

Beulah Parker said she and her husband a couple of years ago transferred the property to Junior Ray's daughter to avoid the eventual tricky business of probate.

Gerald Williams walks out to his garage Wednesday, June 22, 2011 in Morehouse, Mo. Williams home was ravaged by floodwater in May. With assistance from FEMA, Williams has been able to begin repairs to the interior of his home. (Laura Simon)

"We did it to try to help the kids so they don't have any trouble when we're gone," she said.

Now, the Parkers find themselves at a standstill in collecting FEMA grant money. Technically, the elderly couple would be considered renters, and their daughter a landlord, making all ineligible for home repair assistance under FEMA rules. Beulah Parker said she has notarized documentation showing that she and her husband have maintained the property and paid all of the bills.

"We took care of it. It was ours. But we didn't have the deed on it, so we didn't get anything," she said. "I guess we fell through the cracks."

But it turns out they shouldn't have.

'It's a trap'

On the advice of Mayor Pete Leija, who got some answers from FEMA for the Parkers, Buelah Parker went to the FEMA disaster relief center in Morehouse to state her case. She said she was laughed at by a FEMA representative and was basically told she was out of luck -- in what some took as a disparaging remark about the mayor.

"She just kind of laughed pretty loud ... and said if Pete was Obama's brother he could tell FEMA what to do," she said.

Leija complained, and he said the FEMA official reportedly has been fired, or at least moved from the Morehouse center.

"These people need help. They don't need to be preached at and they don't need to be lectured," Leija said.

FEMA spokesman John Mills said he couldn't comment on the report but said that if any FEMA employee yelled at or made derogatory statements to a disaster survivor, those incidents would be investigated "and if true that person would be dealt with appropriately."

More important for the Parkers, Mills confirmed the couple need only provide the proper records showing that they've made payments for property taxes, homeowners insurance and other expenses, and prove that they have maintained the property to be considered for the FEMA grant money.

"If they maintain evidence that they typically make payments a homeowner would make, then FEMA would consider them for all types of assistance," he said.

FEMA provides a maximum of $30,200 for housing repairs and replacement, rental payments for temporary housing and other emergency needs, money to replace personal property and assistance for medical, dental and transportation needs not provided by insurance or other government and charitable programs.

Leija and Tim Russell, executive director of Hope International, a faith-based organization assisting in Morehouse, said they've worked with several Morehouse residents, many of them elderly, all of them low-income, who are in similar situations. They've transferred their property to a family member's name, though they still reside in the home, to avoid problems with probate after they die or to escape certain income and asset thresholds for government programs like Medicaid. To be eligible for Missouri's Medicaid program, MO HealthNet, individual elderly residents must have a maximum monthly income level of $772 and an individual asset limit of $999.99, according to the Missouri Department of Social Services.

"I've seen numerous people who fell in that criteria," Russell said. "It's a trap. They can't afford insurance. They have to get rid of the assets they have. So their children get an early inheritance, and then they wind up in trouble."

Department of Social Services spokesman Seth Bundy said the agency does not have any data on the numbers of Missourians who transfer property to meet the asset limit.

Mills said the point is moot on the FEMA assistance front if individuals who file for assistance have the proper documentation.

"God knows I told the truth. At least I know I did the right thing. I didn't lie," Buelah Parker said. As of Thursday afternoon, she was still waiting to hear back from FEMA.

Stuck in the middle

Dale Graham is caught in another quandary.

His home, like many of his Madison Street neighbors, has been condemned. Floodwaters washed out the south wall of the three-bedroom house, bringing down the ceiling and buckling the floors.

He's received a $19,000 check from FEMA, but it's not half of what he estimates the damages to be.

Graham sought a Small Business Administration low-interest loan but was rejected. SBA said he doesn't make enough money to make the loan payments.

He's not sure what he's going to do. Six or seven years ago, Graham said, his home was close to being paid off. He and his wife borrowed on the property to fix it up. They're still paying off that loan.

"I've always learned growing up you don't go out looking for a handout," he said.

Still, Graham, moving closer to retirement age, said he'd like enough help to pick up the pieces. He stands to lose a home he's owned for 25 years.

"You can go back and rebuild a home, but you can't rebuild them ... years," he said.

Graham, Leija and other Morehouse residents say FEMA has come through in many cases. As of late last week, Morehouse had received $2,148,969 in grants, more than two-thirds of the $2.91 million FEMA has distributed to flood-affected residents of New Madrid County.

"FEMA is going to do everything possible to help all of the people of Morehouse," Mills said.

Mike and Kelly Starbuck are believers. The couple's home was badly damaged in the flood. They're living in a 25-foot camper in their backyard while their house is repaired.

"We're camping," Kelly Starbuck sarcastically tells a neighbor at Morehouse's temporary city hall, based in an empty house the property owners offered for city business.

The Starbucks say their FEMA funds won't cover everything, but it helps.

"We appreciate every nickel we got," Mike said.

"'Cause anything we got was more than we had," Kelly added.

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

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Morehouse, MO

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