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Permanent Disaster Relief Fund Eyed for Undocumented New Yorkers in Ida’s Wake

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Motorists try to drive through rising flood water along Leonard St in Brooklyn, Sept. 1, 2021.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITTY

A state and city fund created to help undocumented immigrants shut out of federal disaster relief after remnants of Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc could become a permanent fixture as extreme weather becomes more routine, top officials said Monday. 

At a news conference unveiling the $27 million program, Gov. Kathy Hochul didn’t rule out instituting an assistance pool for New Yorkers who are ineligible for aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of their immigration status. 

“That is very much a possibility,” Hochul said in response to THE CITY’s question. “Something I’d be happy to talk to our leadership going forward.” 

“But I’d also want to acknowledge that we didn’t have a fund, in this case, and three weeks after the event the money is going out. So we also have the ability to be very flexible and nimble going forward,” added the governor, who had only been in office for about a week when Ida hit. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke at the Queens Museum about providing Hurricane Ida-related relief to undocumented New Yorkers.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Meanwhile, leaders of the state Assembly and Senate said they were open to a permanent funding structure.

The deadly Sept. 1 storm, which soaked parts of the city with more than three inches of rain an hour, brought subways to a halt, transformed roadways into rivers and deluged homes with rainwater and sewage. Thirteen people died — the bulk of whom lived in basement apartments that became submerged with water. 

Hochul asked President Joe Biden’s administration for an expedited disaster declaration for portions of the state pummeled by the storm. Biden approved the request, unlocking millions of dollars in federal financial relief for local governments and New Yorkers who saw their homes wrecked by flooding. 

But excluded from the federal government’s aid were undocumented immigrants, many of whom reside in some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, including in Queens. 

“We’re at war with Mother Nature,” Hochul said. “We don’t leave anybody on the battlefield. We bring everybody with us. We find out a way to help them regain some semblance of their past life and tell them we care about them.”

‘A No-Brainer For Us’

Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) also raised the possibility of making permanent a fund that undocumented New Yorkers could access in the event of a natural diaster, during the news conference in the Queens Museum. 

“This is almost like a no-brainer for us,” said Heastie, who leads a supermajority of Democrats in the state Assembly. “Like I said, this is going to keep happening and if these things are going to keep happening, we should plan for them. This is going to be the new normal.” 

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke at the Queens Museum.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said it’s “certainly something we would consider and discuss.” 

The $27 million fund administered by the state’s Office of New Americans for Ida victims ineligible for FEMA assistance will be accepting applications until Nov. 26. The fund could provide as much as $72,000 to each applicant for housing and damaged property. 

There’s no precise estimate on how many households are eligible for the first-come-first-serve funding, the governor said, adding that some 1,200 homes were destroyed, including on Long Island as well as in Westchester and Rockland counties. 

Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (D-Manhattan) estimates that her office has fielded requests from some two dozen households who can’t access the FEMA funds, with likely many more in a similar situation. 

Federal Fix in the Mix

A push to provide financial assistance to undocumented immigrants isn’t stopping at the local level. 

“I want to be clear that this does not mean Congress is relieved of its responsibility,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens), who said her office would be sending FEMA a letter this week calling on the agency to amend its eligibility for disaster relief. 

“States should not be left to pick up the tab for a federal, federal, disaster relief program,” she said at the Queens Museum. 

Among those who will now be able to access financial relief is Nancy Ospina, a longtime Woodside resident whose basement apartment filled with water in a matter of minutes on Sept. 1. 

Queens resident Nancy Ospina said rain flooded her basement apartment ‘like a river.”

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Ospina, an undocumented housekeeper, said the rain entered her apartment “like a river,” quickly inundating her bed and other furniture. Two upstairs neighbors helped Ospina out of her apartment, worried that she might get electrocuted, she recalled in Spanish at the news conference. 

“All of these years I’ve done my taxes,” Ospina said, thanking the governor for “doing something for us. 

“God is good,” she added.

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