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Disaster Money Favors The Wealthy, But Not On Horton Avenue

Charles Lane
Linda Hobson organized a FEMA mitigation grant for Horton Avenue when, on average, most grants go to white wealthy homeowners.

Horton Avenue in Riverhead, Long Island, isn’t the ideal place to build a home. It’s at the bottom of a long hill. There’s a frozen marsh on one side of the road, and a duck pond on the other. But it’s where a dozen African-American families from Virginia settled back in the 1920s.

“My mom bought the land for a little under $1,000,” Linda Hobson said. “And she bought the wood for $500.”

Near the base of Long Island’s North Fork, most of the land around Horton Avenue is agricultural. Hobson’s mother worked on a potato farm, and her father died farming. Her parents built their house from an old barn someone tore down. After college, Hobson came back to live in the home. Her neighbors were the same. They lived on Horton their whole lives.

“There used to be barbeques, and on Sundays after church people used to come to Horton Avenue and this was the place to be,” she recalled.

Back then, Hobson says, Horton Avenue was one of the few places in Riverhead where it was acceptable for black people to live.

“But it didn’t stop the people from thriving. They took what they could get and built up on it and made it work for them,” she said.

NPR has reported that, when federal disaster aid gets distributed, white and wealthy individuals generally receive more money than minorities and those with less wealth. The end result is that the rich people get richer and poor people get poorer.

But not on Horton Avenue. After a monumental effort, the African Americans there defied these odds.

It began in March of 2010, when it poured for three days straight. Nine inches of rain ran down that long hill and turned Horton Avenue turned into a lake with 13 tiny homes sticking out.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency came out to survey the damage. But because it was only 13 properties, the homeowners didn’t qualify for traditional disaster aid. But they formed a nonprofit and, along with their pastor, Shirley Coverdale, started organizing politicians.

“That group was really, really important in maintaining the appropriate level of attention for all elected officials,” said former Congressman Tim Bishop.

They petitioned to have the storm that flooded Horton Avenue connected to another storm that had previously affected New England. But to do that, these 13 families had to ask the county to ask the governor to ask the president for a disaster declaration.

After that, they had to find a path to somehow pay for repairing or replacing their destroyed homes.

FEMA has a pot of money set aside for mitigation grants. They’re meant to fund projects that will prevent future flood losses. In Horton Avenue’s case, they wanted FEMA to buy their homes, relocate them, and convert the land into wetlands. But after already being denied traditional disaster aid, several elected officials thought a mitigation grant was unlikely.

“It was a struggle,” the former congressman said.

Slowly the bureaucratic cogs started turning. The group had to convince the town of Riverhead to file a grant application with FEMA to buy out their homes, and convince town officials to pay some of the costs. Then they had to draw up plans and prepare to relocate.

Their application was rejected several times. And each time, there needed to be an elected official willing to keep pushing for it.

“And I remember very clearly having a conversation with the number two person in FEMA,” Bishop remembered, “and I just said to him, we have to get to yes on this.”

Riverhead’s chief of police, David Hegermiller, also helped write the application. According to him, after the politicians were motivated, “it was a pretty smooth process” — if a lot of paperwork.

“The state comes down. They tell you exactly what you have to do. There’s a whole booklet and stuff like that,” he said.

It took more than two years of bureaucracy, but finally, FEMA approved a $2.8 million grant to buy everyone’s home, tear them down, and turn that area around Horton Avenue into wetlands.

Linda Hobson remembers crying on the phone when she got the news. “I couldn’t believe that we had gotten a grant. It allowed people who had lost everything to rebuild their house.”

She describes the application process as a gargantuan effort that leaves marginalized communities, particular people of color, at a disadvantage while giving wealthy, white homeowners more access to FEMA grants.

“I think in minority communities you have people who struggle more,” she said recently. “They’re less apt to speak out. They don’t have a lot of representation. They aren’t civically involved all the time. They’re definitely not politically connected.”

She says if she had to go through it again, she wouldn’t volunteer to organize. It was just too much work.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.