A tattered white and gold travel trailer sits on Ronnie’s property in Hitchcock, a rural stretch of Galveston County about 15 miles from the Island. Off an unmarked gravel road, past brown, withering pastured was where I met Ronnie for the first time. Ronnie had lived in this travel trailer for almost three months. Unlike the FEMA trailers still dotting our entire Gulf Coast, this trailer has no luxuries of a FEMA trailer. This trailer has no electricity. No running water either.
Heaps of salvaged, molded memories cover the tiny trailer table, piles of Ronnie’s life, a wedding photo of his mother, a decayed graduation tassel, a letter from his father. He hands me notebooks scribbled with names and numbers crossed out, logs of calls unreturned, letters of rejection UTMB for emergency treatment and letters from FEMA.
Help didn’t come anywhere near Ronnie for weeks after Hurricane Ike blew through. Every day that passed, Ronnie watched as neighbor by neighbor packed up and drove away. Many abandoned pets. Some Ronnie found emaciated and starving in the street. Tears well up as he tells me he would’ve saved every one of them, if he could’ve. Those he did rescue sleep on a beaten up tiny loveseat in the trailer along with him.
What’s left of Ronnie’s house sits just about 20 feet from the trailer. The hurricane had ripped the back of his house off entirely, exposing the inside like a dollhouse. When FEMA did arrive, the inspector sat in his truck for an hour, smoking and chatting on the phone. Ronnie watched as the inspector snapped three or four pictures from the truck’s window. Eventually, Ronnie walked out and introduced himself. He told the inspector to follow him through the house to the back since that’s clearly where it sustained the most damage.
Walking up the steps, the FEMA inspector said, ”Jesus man, your house is disgusting. It smells awful. It’s nasty. Why don’t you do something with it?” An embarrassed, ashamed Ronnie struggled to put into words that after months without electricity, food had spoiled and the water, mud and mold had stagnated. But the inspector interrupted Ronnie. He had all he needed to know, he said, and besides, it didn’t matter anyway because Ronnie probably wouldn’t get approved for FEMA money.
A few days later, Ronnie got his FEMA letter: ”Insufficient damage. Application denied.” Lone Star Legal Aid immediately took action and appealed the denial by re-submitting his application, fighting the insufficient damages claim, and proving an easily documented reason why Ronnie’s house qualified as sufficiently damaged. FEMA accepted the appeal, and Ronnie received a check for $21,000.
As we were leaving Ronnie’s property, he told us that he had been part of a University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) indigent program, which paid for his weekly shots to boost his kidney function, shots that kept him from going on dialysis, shots that ultimately were supposed to postpone a kidney transplant. But Ronnie said he felt tired all the time. He couldn’t walk more than a few steps without pain. It had been months since his last kidney treatment shot. UTMB, dealing with funding problems and hurricane damage, said it couldn’t treat him anymore. And at $1,500 a vial, there was no way he could pay for weekly shots. LSLA staff traveled down to UTMB and visited several clinics around Galveston County. Finally, one community clinic gave us a guarantee to help with his treatments. Last time we checked in on Ronnie, he was rebuilding his home and getting health care from the same clinic we found.