I live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and like Puerto Rico, Cuba, Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, etc. Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma. There were casualties, flooding, damage to residences, food loss, lengthy widespread power outages…the usual results of a hurricane. Unfortunately Florida is no stranger to tropical storms, and has been affected by three category 5 hurricanes within the last 11 years, which begs the question: Given that most people know tropical storms are a common occurrence in Florida, why was the Food for Florida application process at Central Broward Regional Park so poorly planned and executed? What I saw at Central Broward Regional Park today was an unconscionable level of disorganization and a complete disregard for the health of Food for Florida applicants. Allow me to explain how so many people in need were left high and dry at Central Broward Regional Park today.
Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP)
Food for Florida (also referred to as D-SNAP) is an emergency food stamp program provided by FEMA and Florida’s Department of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a service of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Food for Florida is only available to those who do not receive food stamp benefits, but were impacted by hurricane Irma. Like many, my family suffered food loss due to an extensive power outage, and had to spend money that would’ve normally been spent on other necessities replacing spoiled food. As a result, my mother and I decided to apply for the program.
The Online Pre-Registration Application
This was by far the best part of the Food for Florida application process. The application was far more coherent and quicker to complete than the standard SNAP application. Upon completion of the application I was instructed to bring proof of my identification to one of the three Food for Florida sites within my zip code, and give a Food for Florida representative my pre-registration number, and that was where the Food for Florida application process went to shit.
Central Broward Regional Park: It’s Clear No Planning Was Involved in This Location’s Food for Florida Distribution
Central Broward Regional Park was scheduled to be open for Food for Florida applicants today from 7 AM – 6 PM. Since my car is currently undriveable we took the bus, with the earliest route available arriving to pick us up shortly before 6 AM. We arrived at Central Broward Regional Park at roughly 6:25 AM and begin making our way to the end of the long line.
The Unorganized Line
I spotted a Lauderhill police officer and asked: “Excuse me, where‘s the line for the disabled and senior citizens?”
“There isn‘t one. Everybody gets in one line.” he replied.
I immediately knew that would be a huge problem. What person with common sense would think to put possibly thousands of people in one line? Why not separate applicants into three lines: one line for senior citizens, the disabled, and pregnant women; a second line for those who had already completed the pre-registration application online (otherwise, what was the point of even completing the pre-registration application online if doing so still fails to cut down your wait time); and the third and final line should’ve been for walk-in applicants who hadn’t pre-registered online. All three lines should’ve been manned so that progress could be made rapidly, and FEMA or Florida DCF staff members should’ve walked that line and issued everyone in it a numbered ticket so that there would be no confusion as to one’s place in line.
Line Cutting, Fainting, and Lackadaisical Lauderhill Police Officers
I’ve been assisted by Lauderhill Police officers before, and some of them, such as Officers Skinner, Smith, and Troy are good cops who genuinely try to help the people within my community. However, the officers stationed at Central Broward Regional Park today had no desire to help anyone, be there, or…work. A pregnant woman fainted in the rain and was carried to two police officers by her boyfriend. Neither of the officers bothered to call for medical assistance, which was onsite at the time. My mother, who is nearing 70-years-old and is disabled with numerous health issues, nearly fainted in the extreme heat. Some kind-hearted people who had also been waiting in line since we arrived helped me get her up off the hot sidewalk and place her in a chair. I walked over to a petite blonde female officer (whose name I wish I had written down) and asked her what precautions were being taken for the elderly and sick waiting in line?
“Yeah, we don‘t know anything. The weather is just really hot and everyone‘s stuck in it. There‘s nothing we can do. Everyone‘s just gotta deal with it.”
“Well, I‘m not asking about the police. I‘m asking what this organization is doing for senior citizens and disabled people. My Mom‘s elderly with health problems and she just almost passed out. Is there any emergency medical assistance around?”
“Yeah, there is, but we don‘t really wanna use it for this.” she said. What the hell did “…we don‘t really wanna use it for this” mean? That they didn’t want to waste medical assistance on my Mom, or on any of the Food for Florida applicants?
“Could you please ask someone from the program if there any precautions being taken for the elderly and sick, and if I can come talk to someone?”
“Yes, I will do that.”
She left and returned about 5 minutes later. “I don‘t have any information. You guys are just gonna have to sit tight and wait it out.”
“Well, can you escort me up there to speak with someone from the program about my Mom? There are senior citizens and sick people sitting out here basting in the sun and they should’ve been given priority!”
“No, there‘s nothing I can do.” she replied.
“That‘s bullshit.” I said. I was pissed because not only did I know she didn’t give a damn about my Mom or any of the applicants, but I knew she never went and asked any FEMA or DCF staff member anything on my behalf. Given our placement in the line, it would’ve taken her probably 20 minutes to get to a staff member. At that point the sorry excuse for an officer who supposedly took an oath to “protect and serve” just walked off.
As I mentioned, everyone should’ve been issued a numbered ticket of their place in line. That would’ve been handy when 200+ people went beneath the limp yellow tape used as a divider for the one line, cutting in front of others who had been waiting in line for hours. Most of the officers weren’t very vigilant when it came to people cutting the line. When one person in line hailed an officer to report that the person in front of her had cut the line he responded: “If I didn’t see it, it didn‘t happen.” and walked away. I wonder if he views crime the same way.
In the End, Most of Us Were Screwed
After waiting in line for over 7 hours, getting drenched in the rain twice and subsequently roasted in the sun, a Lauderhill police officer announced: “FEMA has suspended the program! There‘s no guarantee the gate will be re–opened. You are waiting in line at your own risk! Come back tomorrow morning!”
So, after we had waited in this unorganized line for hours, received no numbered tickets indicating our places in line, we were told we wouldn’t be seen today and should come back tomorrow. For what? To experience the same disorganization and disregard that we received at Central Broward Regional Park today? Why was no consideration shown for the sick, the elderly, the disabled, or the expectant mothers? When a meager amount of bottled water was passed out they were hot bottles of water that had never been refrigerated or kept on ice. No portable toilets were available for over 1000 people who were expected to wait in line for a minimun of 6 hours, which was simply outrageous. Were applicants expected to come wearing adult diapers? Applicants were told by Lauderhill police officers if they left the line for any reason (to use the restroom, buy food for themselves or their children, or get water to stay hydrated) they would have to go to the end of the line. One woman was forced to publicly urinate in a cup. It was as if FEMA and Florida Children and Families had decided to torture us for applying for emergency food assistance. Where was the consideration for applicants who were dependant on public transportation? If the earliest bus most Broward County residents can catch is at around 6 AM, how are they expected to get a reasonable place in line when there are people who have been waiting in line for several hours before them? Why is it no one ever answers the Florida DCF Customer Call Center line at 1-866-762-2237? Where was the common sense when it came to implementing a system that would allow those who were unable to apply the day before to return the next day and return to their place in line from the previous day? Something like, I don’t know, numbered tickets! If Florida DCF had issued appointments for 400 – 500 applicants to be processed at each Food for Florida site per day it would’ve been a better system than what’s in place now. For some people waiting in line it was their third day attempting to apply for Food for Florida, and multiple locations had closed early yesterday as well, so it is absolutely egregious that FEMA, the Florida Department of Children and Families, and Broward County Parks didn’t take any of these issues into consideration, especially given they had weeks, if not months, of planning before Food for Florida distribution began. Why not just allow everyone to apply online, as with standard SNAP applicants, and mail Food for Florida applicants a SNAP card?! It certainly would’ve been safer, easier, and less frustrating. The handling of Food for Florida and the treatment of this program’s applicants today at Central Broward Regional Park was in a word: disgraceful.