The effort to get disaster food assistance to those who need it continues in Sampson County, whose Department of Social Services staff was inundated over the weekend by a mass of people seeking relief.
DSS director Sarah Bradshaw said Monday that thousands of people showed up on Saturday and Sunday at the Sampson Agri-Exposition Center, where roughly 1,400 people were seen on Saturday and about 1,100 more on Sunday. There were long lines greeting staffers at the start of Monday morning, but that had tapered off by afternoon, Bradshaw noted.
Disaster food assistance was approved Friday for Sampson County, one of 18 counties that received the go-ahead from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer aid to those directly impacted by Hurricane Matthew. Sampson DSS began taking disaster food assistance program applications Saturday at the Sampson Agri-Exposition Center, located at 414 Warsaw Road in Clinton, and the line extended across the parking lot.
Applications will continue to be taken from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Wednesday, Oct. 26.
“We’ve seen over 2,500 people in the first two days,” she stated. “Of those, we have had about two-thirds approval and one-third denial. Some said they didn’t know we were looking at income. We are looking at income.”
The Disaster Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) program is separate from the regular FNS program operated by the Sampson County DSS. Anyone already receiving regular food assistance benefits will not be allowed to apply for the disaster program. Instead, individuals already receiving such benefits will receive an automatic replacement to ensure a maximum allotment for the eligible household is received.
While a form of identification for the applicant or a signed statement from anyone physically unable to apply in person are “absolute necessities,” it is not the only criteria keeping people from EBT cards, Bradshaw stated.
Verification of residency and loss of income or inaccessibility of resources are expected to be verified “when possible.” If verification is not available through county resources, DSS officials have been told not to pend the application, but accept client’s statement.
To be eligible for the Disaster FNS benefits, the household must have lived in the disaster area at the time of the disaster; must plan on purchasing food during the disaster period; and must have experienced at least one of several adverse effects. Those effects include damage to or destruction of the household’s home or self-employment; food loss; lost or inaccessible income; inaccessible liquid resources; or a disaster-related expense that will be paid or anticipated to be paid during the benefit period, which will not be reimbursed.
The window for countable income is Oct. 7-Nov. 6.
Essentially, that means the amount of income made by the applicant from Oct. 7 until the date the application is submitted will be tallied along with any anticipated income for the remainder of that window of time. That is added to any cash on hand or reserves (savings/checking) available to that applicant. The amount of disaster-related expenses, ranging from batteries and candles to generators or gas grills, will then be deducted from that overall income amount to get the disaster gross income amount.
“If that amount is under the limit for their household size, they will receive assistance,” said Bradshaw.
Some of the one-third of the populous who has been denied said they wasted several hours of their life waiting on assistance they ultimately did not receive.
One elderly woman, who called the Sampson Independent and spoke on condition of anonymity, said her daughter waited most of the day Saturday to get aid, but was denied. Already a recipient of food stamps, she received a replacement but said she was seeking the maximum allotment for a household of one — nearly $200. She said she didn’t get it.
“Someone in Cumberland County told me they didn’t ask what (income) you make,” the woman said, “but in Clinton they were turning people away. I don’t know what in the world they think they’re doing. I’m already on food stamps. I’m old. I lost some food and my power stayed off for six days. But they still told (my daughter) no.”
Bradshaw said there has been “a lot of confusion” over the replacement on existing EBT cards.
Automated supplements will be issued to allow active October recipients of the 18 counties to receive the maximum allotment for their household size, with that supplement being the difference between the household’s October 2016 benefits and the maximum allotment for their household size. Those who receive a maximum allotment will not receive a replacement.
Maximum allotment benefits are as follows: $194 for a household of one; $357 for two; $511 for three; $649 for four; $771 for five; $925 for six; $1,022 for seven; and $1,169 for a household of eight. The amount then increases by $146 for each additional member of the household after that.
Bradshaw said Monday that replacements were only been made at 30 percent for September, while the automated supplements for October are still pending.
“That October supplement has not been loaded yet,” the DSS director remarked. “There has been a lot of confusion about that.”
Others took to the Sampson Independent’s Facebook page to voice their displeasure at the process.
“The disaster relief program for Sampson County are denying people if they make too much! How is that helping anyone?” resident Ashley Michelle wrote. “Shouldn’t matter how much anyone makes if we were all victims of Hurricane Matthew.”
Katrina Rae Powell said she waited in vain for over five hours to receive assistance.
“We didn’t get anything,” she stated. “It’s messed up how hard we work and we’re both out of work and power and lost every bit of food we had and we can’t get nothing.”
Bradshaw said a staff of 60 is accommodating the mass of people at the Expo Center through the weekend and into this week. Those staffers are working at five or six different stations to handle the rush. She said there were some wait times at the onset on Saturday and to start the week Monday, but no one has had to wait for several hours as some have claimed.
“We want to provide the best customer service possible,” said Bradshaw, who noted that “well over 50 percent” of the county was affected by Matthew.
The county has not offered disaster food assistance since 2011, when Hurricane Irene hit. Following that storm, DSS staff had to take everyone’s address, research their power company and the impacts and then determine eligibility. It brought significant delays to application processing.
‘This time it did take a little more time than usual, but the state has to do a lot of work to get to the point they can send the (waiver request) to the USDA,” Bradshaw noted of obtaining approval to offer disaster food assistance. “We were requesting as a state to be allowed to venture off the normal food eligibility requirements. They’ve been doing all that work since the recovery began.”
That work has included compiling information from power companies serving affected counties and data on flooding to gauge the impacted areas. Waivers for disaster food assistance were requested for 18 counties that had 50 percent or more of their population without power and significant flooding impacts — Sampson was one of them.
State officials are warning against fraud when applying for Disaster FNS benefits or requesting replacement benefits. Everyone who applies will sign a form acknowledging the penalties for fraud and likewise be instructed by staff. All applications are subject to an audit, and county and state employees will be audited.
A USDA representative has been on-site throughout the process and, following each day, DSS officials must report how many applications were submitted and how many EBT cards handed out.
Those physically unable to apply can either call Sampson County DSS at 910-592-7131 or can authorize someone else to apply in person on their behalf by sending a signed statement with them. For comprehensive information about the disaster food assistance application process, visit goo.gl/cIe5by.
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.