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FEMA Rejects Applications for Aid by Wine Country Wildfire Victims

SANTA ROSA (KPIX) -- Many of the Wine Country wildfire survivors made it through that tragedy to now find themselves as victims for a second time. They say now their problem is the government agency meant to help them.

In Sonoma County alone, thousands of houses were destroyed and even more lives turned upside-down in the disaster.

Buried under piles of FEMA paperwork, Robert Percy is half-blind and at his wits end. But still, he says, he can't get what he needs.

Percy lost an eye in the fire and said, "I've been asking for assistance, assistance, assistance...and you stuck me in a motel and forgot about me."

He lived in Coddingtown Mobile Home Park, an area that partially caught fire.

It didn't totally burn down thanks partly to Percy's efforts. He woke up all his neighbors, then stayed to fight the fire with a garden hose.

"There was one across the street that the flames had just gotten into and if that would have caught on fire then the whole place would be I stayed and put it out," Percy said.

At some point in that firefight he got something in his eye, and he lost it. He paid his own medical bills, but he can't go back to his smoke contaminated house until his surgeries are complete and his eye has healed.

Otherwise he risks losing the other one.

Days before his last surgery, FEMA kicked him out of his motel and rejected his claim to help clean his trailer.

That's when Legal Aid of Sonoma County stepped in. But even disaster attorney Kendall Jarvis has had a hard time.

"There isn't a party to hold responsible and get answers to those questions," Jarvis said. "Who is it? Who do I call? Because I haven't been able to find them."

Percy isn't her only client.

FEMA says only 3,356 applicants have been approved for aid out of the 16,660 who applied in Sonoma County.

At least two dozen of those rejected fire survivors have turned to Legal Aid of Sonoma County and even more plan to attend their FEMA seminars.

Lorna Rochman-McEntire said her FEMA claim has also been rejected.

"It's crushing," Rochman-McEntire said. "Like a bulldozer just taking your feelings and pushing them aside and saying, 'You don't matter.'"

Rochman-McEntire's daughter has cerebral palsy and her therapy horse, Crystal, prescribed to her by her doctor, died in the fire. Since then, medical bills are stacking up and Hana has regressed.

FEMA rejected her claim for aid as well.

"I definitely feel like there is a black hole," Rochman-McEntire said.

Legal Aid of Sonoma County accuses FEMA of rejection for aid without a clear reason, repeatedly losing client's documents, and a lack of clarity when it comes to their policy.

The issues are so widespread that Legal Aid of Sonoma County worries the process systemically infringes on people's rights.

Legal Aid of Sonoma County executive director Ronit Runinoff said, "If you are denied by the government those benefits then the government should be able to tell you why you are denied. Otherwise, how are you able to prove that the government is or isn't adhering to their own regulations? So there's no due process that tells you why you are or aren't eligible."

We reached out to FEMA specifically about these allegations.

In a written statement, FEMA states: "We are committed to helping the people who were affected by the wildfires and want to ensure those who are eligible receive the maximum level of assistance..."

FEMA goes on to say that programs are "often limited. Sometimes a specific need may not fit within our programs..."

Legal Aid of Sonoma County has its next FEMA aid seminar Saturday at their office in Santa Rosa, and then every other weekend after that.

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