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FEMA presence reassures victims Federal relief funds flow as Silver Creek recovers

Harry Sutton can smile, even joke about it now, but back on that rain-soaked August morning, he was fighting to save not just his home, but his life.

"If two firemen didn't have hold of me, I wouldn't be here talking to you," the 81-year-old said with a grin.

One of the reasons Sutton can smile is $30,300 in federal aid that helped him and his wife rebuild after a devastating flood destroyed their trailer and 34 others at a Silver Creek mobile home park.

And he's not alone.

As of Monday, six weeks after the flood hit and four weeks after relief workers first arrived here, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had provided $3.3 million in assistance to victims.

With the money has come a large FEMA presence, most notably 235 employees trained in disaster assistance on the ground in Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and southern Erie counties.

"They helped us get on our feet," said Valerie Roach, who, like Sutton, lost everything in the flood.

The family car? Damaged and washed away.

Their mobile home? Destroyed.

Personal photos and mementos? Gone forever.

"The water was up to my waist when it started," Roach said of the flood she'll never forget. "And within seconds, it was up to my neck."

Roach's family is one of five from the Silver Village Mobile Home Park, one of the hardest-hit flood areas, that have relocated to a new park with FEMA's help.

On this warm September day, she's standing outside their new home, 8-month-old son Alex in her arms, while Alex's father, Shawn Pfleuger, heads off in a car they also bought with FEMA money.

"It seems like most people got something," Pfleuger said of the assistance to families from Silver Village.

Here and in nearby Gowanda, where damage was even more widespread, there's a sense that FEMA is getting it right this time. The anti-Katrina, as one person described it.

"We're trying to be aggressive about getting the word out," FEMA spokesman Wali Armstead said of the agency's efforts. "Each event, we try to do a little better."

In the weeks right after the storm and before FEMA arrived on the scene, local officials were critical of the agency's slowness in deciding whom it might assist.

While President Obama had announced that municipalities would receive aid, individual homeowners and businesses were fearful that they might be left out.

"It took awhile to get FEMA in here, but once they were in, they moved quickly," said Sandy Sunzeri, a Silver Creek homeowner who watched as the flood ruptured the house's foundation and ruined most of the basement, including the furnace and hot water heater.

Sunzeri said that she signed up for FEMA assistance on the Sunday before Labor Day and that a team of workers was at her door the next day. She received a check that Friday.

"It was a horrible, horrible night," Sunzeri said of the flood, "but I have no regrets about FEMA."

Not everyone shares her view of the federal agency that many still associate with the bungled relief effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Suzanne Grabowski, property manager at Silver Village, praised FEMA for its role in relocating residents from her mobile home park, but she wonders why others were denied help.

She said two of her employees who lived in the park were rejected by FEMA because they have homeowners insurance. The problem, she said, is their insurance doesn't cover flood damage.

"They lost everything," Grabowski said. "They were hurt just as much as anyone else, but they're being penalized. I don't think that's right."

After three weeks on the ground here, FEMA is starting to win converts, in part because of its extensive outreach efforts and responsiveness.

As of Monday, the agency had received 1,012 applications for assistance, with the largest number, 469, coming from Cattaraugus County.

"I think we're making progress, but we have a long way to go," said State Sen. Catharine M. Young, R-Olean, one of many lawmakers critical of FEMA's initial delays in deciding whom it would help.

One of the challenges now, Young said, is finding people who need help but have not yet asked for it. She recently visited West Valley and came across a man who lost his home and was living in a tent.

"Right now, it's a matter of making sure everyone who sustained damage gets as much help as possible," said Chautauqua County Executive Gregory J. Edwards. "There are just some folks who fly under the radar."

For people such as Sutton, Roach and Pfleuger, the money already is in hand. Armstead said the average grant so far is about $5,500 per household.

"The flood pretty much destroyed everything we had," said Fred Mead, a former Silver Village resident.

Spend a little time with Mead or any other victim, and chances are good you'll hear a horror story or two about what happened that Monday morning when violent thunderstorms and torrential rains caused flooding that destroyed hundreds of homes.

Mead tells of the fast-moving and rapidly rising water that reached 12 feet deep.

He also tells of how he watched his washer and dryer floating away, and of the cars that were later found inside people's mobile homes.

"It piled trailers on top of my trailer," Mead said. "I just thank God. I could have lost my life, not to mention everyone around me." With FEMA's help, Mead was able to buy a new trailer and relocate.

For others, it's still a waiting game.

Jessica Cullinan and Jose Ramirez were relocated with FEMA's help, but the family is still waiting for cash assistance.

"We pretty much lost everything," Cullinan said. "I had clothes I can never replace. I had childhood photos I can never replace. And I had gifts I can never replace."

While FEMA's presence here is good news, it doesn't mean everyone will get the help they need.

Officials are quick to caution that individuals and businesses may not get reimbursed for all storm-related damage. Nevertheless, they encourage people to ask.

"Any folks who sustained damage should apply," Armstead said. "That's the message we're trying to get out."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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