Tens of thousands of wilting South Floridians stood hours in the sweltering, soggy heat Sunday at Tropical Park, waiting to apply for special food stamps available only to victims Hurricane Irma, stunning state officials who were expecting just a fraction of that response.
“We’ve been dealing with about 10,000 people a day,” said Ofelia Martinez, the Miami site manager for the state Department of Children and Families (DCF). “But when we opened the doors this morning, the police told us there were already 50,000 people waiting outside.”
Whether they would all get their chance to apply for the food stamps was uncertain as the relentless heat burned on Sunday afternoon.
“We will do our best; we will stop adding people to the line at 6 p.m.,” Martinez said. “And we’ll stay until midnight or 1 a.m. But that’s a lot of people.”
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The Food for Florida Disaster Food Assistance Program, as the program is formally known, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and operated by DCF, is designed for people in 48 counties across the state who aren’t ordinarily eligible for food stamps but suffered losses during Hurricane Irma last month.
It opened up shop in Miami-Dade and Broward counties on Wednesday and drew steadily bigger crowds through its Sunday finale. The throngs were so large and rowdy on Saturday that five of the distribution points closed down early in the day — in some cases, before serving even a single client.
DCF said Sunday they would be holding more in-person sign-ups in the future, but a spokeswoman would not specify when the agency would announce dates and locations.
But the turnout at Tropical Park, off Bird Road in Miami, though mind-bogglingly big, was orderly if exhausted.
“How am I? Hungry. Tired. Sleepy,” said an out-of-work Miami accountant who would only give the name Enrique as he neared the front of the line after seven and a half hours of waiting. “And thirsty, oh my God, thirsty.”
Like many of the people in line, Enrique was making his second attempt at signing up for the food stamps; on Friday, the distribution center shut down before he made it to the warren of big tents inside Tropical Park where he would have filed his application and (maybe) gotten his benefits.
“That’s so many hours in the sun, so many hard hours, but my wife and I have an autistic son and two other children,” said Enrique, who wouldn’t give his full name because he was embarrassed to be asking for public assistance. “But for a family with five people, I might get $1,500. It all adds up.”
The food stamps are distributed on a sliding scale that factors in family size, income and amount of hurricane damage, so there’s a wide variance in how much a client might get. But DCF officials said a typical single person could qualify for around $300, a typical family of four about $1,300.
The numbers looked good enough to draw people to Tropical Park at 2 a.m. Sunday, five hours before the doors opened. The two lines snaked at least 16 blocks in different directions, over, under and through shattered trees and other hurricane debris scattered on the park’s periphery.
“We got here at 5 a.m. and saw how huge the line was, and we said, this is nuts, let’s go home,” said Socrates Arauz, 42, a construction worker who lives in the Fontainebleau neighborhood just outside Sweetwater. “But — well, here we still are.”
Many people came expecting a long wait, equipped with small coolers, folding chairs, boom boxes, and even stacks of pizza boxes. For everybody else, there were vendors hawking sandwiches and soft drinks. Meanwhile, the crush of cars trying to squeeze into parking spaces (and lots of non-parking spaces as well) turned Bird Road into even more of a vehicular war zone than it usually is.
The crowd, however, stayed mostly tranquil and even friendly as complete strangers bonded during their nine-hour creep to the front. Large numbers of Miami-Dade police officers were stationed along the line, but they had little to do except hand out bottles of water and banter with the crowd. “The first person to give us any trouble today is you,” one cop joked to a reporter.
“Yesterday in Hialeah, at the Amelia Earhart Park, everybody went crazy and ran in all directions,” said 67-year-old Angel Lamela, making his third try for the food stamps. “I even saw a lady in a wheelchair get trampled. But today, everyone is polite and friendly.”