South Florida

‘What am I getting myself into?’: Thousands line up on last day for Irma food aid

Thousands gather for last day of Hurricane Irma food aid

The crowds gathered before dawn as thousands flocked to Hard Rock Stadium for the last day of food aid for Hurricane Irma damages on Nov. 9, 2017.
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The crowds gathered before dawn as thousands flocked to Hard Rock Stadium for the last day of food aid for Hurricane Irma damages on Nov. 9, 2017.

Before Michelle Velez left her home at 6 a.m. Thursday to apply for disaster food assistance, she had one thought: “What am I getting myself into?”

She had seen the news reports of long lines in the punishing heat and the traffic jams that had snarled cars for blocks outside both of the registration sites in Miami-Dade and Broward. She remembered the lack of parking when she had tried to apply for the same disaster food aid last month, where she was turned away before she could even get inside.

But there was no choice, said Velez, 34, as she shuffled forward in line with her fiancé, Christian, outside Hard Rock Stadium. Her Miami Gardens home has three kids and two grandparents who could use the extra help. “We need to replenish what we’ve lost,” she said.

Velez joined thousands already pooling at the Miami Gardens stadium, where the Dolphins and Hurricanes play football, for the final day of the Department of Children and Families’ disaster food assistance program after Hurricane Irma.

The day before, the stadium site had to close its doors early to new people in line after reaching capacity.

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Workers help fill out paperwork for applicants as thousands are lined up early Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens to register for emergency food assistance. Roberto Koltun

The program, also known as D-SNAP, is meant for people who do not receive food stamps but incurred disaster-related expenses or lost income in the hurricane. DCF conducted a round of registrations at several Miami-Dade and Broward sites last month, which drew tens of thousands of people. But the overwhelming demand at the sites forced some to close early, leaving many — including older and disabled people — without assistance.

When the agency said it would reopen one site in each county for a second round of registrations, officials indicated they were taking additional steps to cut the waits, including special accommodations and lines for people with disabilities as well as workers assigned to control traffic. The agency also said it would assign specific days for registering based on a person’s last name.

But on Tuesday and Wednesday, both sites still were hit with overwhelming demand. About 20,000 applications were processed in Miami-Dade on Wednesday, and about 23,000 were processed in Broward at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, according to DCF. .

At the BB&T Center, Sunrise Fire Rescue responded to nearly three dozen medical calls Wednesday for heat-related conditions. Thirteen were taken to the hospital. Before the Hard Rock Stadium site closed early, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue responded to several medical calls there, too, authorities said.

Day three of the emergency food stamp distribution event at Hard Rock Stadium.

The agency has faced criticism for its handling of the in-person registration process, and was sued by the University of Miami Law Clinic last week for not adequately providing for disabled people as required by federal law. DCF spokeswoman Jessica Sims said in a statement that the program is administered based on federal guidelines, including a requirement for face-to-face interviews. DCF has said it has dispersed more than $1.35 billion in disaster food assistance to three million Florida families through the program.

Before 8 a.m. Thursday at Hard Rock Stadium, the line corkscrewed through the parking lot outside the stadium, stretching into the surrounding blocks and onto Northwest 199th Street. Many of those waiting popped open their umbrellas to shade them from the sun. Others brought folding chairs. One woman handed out fans with an advertisement for airbag recalls.

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Thousands are lined up early Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens during the last day of a three-day registration event to apply for emergency food assistance. Roberto Koltun

The lines were so long that one staffer was stationed at the end, with a pre-recorded megaphone blaring, “THE LINE STARTS HERE” in English and Spanish.

But even at 7:30 a.m., tensions were apparent. As some staffers redirected people ahead in line to move, a few people farther back began to complain. “What’s going on with the line?” one woman barked. “Are they getting in a different line?”

“They were ahead of you,” one of the workers responded. “Please remain calm.”

John Rivera, 33, and his mother-in-law got in line around 4:30 a.m., he said. As they finally left the stadium three hours later with their benefits card, he said his family had dipped into their emergency fund to make it through the month after the storm.

“It was kind of like double-spending,” he said. “We went grocery shopping before the storm but the power went out, so we had to go back again.”

Nalleli Zuniga, 28, and her 10-year-old daughter, Amber, came from West Kendall just after 6:40 a.m. More than an hour later, they were still waiting in line outside the stadium.

They had gone during the last round to a registration site in Homestead, but the doors had already closed because of capacity before they arrived.

On Thursday, Zuniga was insistent that they’d make it to the end of the line, as she clasped a purple file folder filled with documents. She didn’t have work, and Amber wasn’t going to school.

“Today,” Zuniga said, “was scheduled only for this.”

By the end of the day, things were moving much smoother. The sun was setting, and the wait was down to as little as 30 minutes. One Hard Rock Stadium staffer was offering high-fives and cheering on the stragglers power walking to the finish.

“Y’all are awesome,” said Kerina Kennedy. “Almost there.”

One woman in line shouted back, “Home for dinner!”

Nini Yuleisi, 26, and her 4-year-old daughter Melanie strolled out with smiles on their faces just after 5:30 p.m. with a slip of paper promising $600 in food benefits over the next two months.

“It’s gonna help out,” she said. “Big time”

Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this story.

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