LAKE WORTH, Fla. - The effort to help the tens of thousands of people secure food disaster assistance could have been better. That's according to some agencies who assisted in the process.
Long lines and confusion carried the week in Lake Worth and Delray Beach and to a lesser extent, Belle Glade. And because the people in charge could not help everyone, they’re working to put more dates on the calendar to assist families who lost food during the power outages from Hurricane Irma.
As of Monday, the Department of Children and Families said they have distributed more than $1 billion in federal disaster food assistance through DSNAP, supplemental benefits, and replacements for regular SNAP customers.
So what can be done differently the next go around? We spoke with the agencies involved about the lessons they learned from the troubles they experienced.
Sixteen-year old Maria Jimenez-Ordonez spent her Saturday where most teens would least expect.
“When I saw the lines, I was kind of scared," she said.
Fluent in Spanish, English and a dialect in the Guatemalan maya language, she’s one of dozens of translator volunteers who stepped up to the plate at John Prince Park in Lake Worth over the weekend.
“I was exhausted but you know what, I’m trying to help move the line so that everyone can get the same help," she said.
Lines were stacked up for miles as thousands of people trying to get disaster food assistance.
“Relief from the hurricane has been difficult and it’s pushed a lot of agencies to their limits," said Tim Gamwell, director of the Guatemala Maya Center.
To handle the sheer amount of people and their cars, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office prevented pedestrian traffic into the parks and allowed only vehicles to enter through a streamlined process. Cars were guided into parking spots by parking attendants.
But traffic was not the only problem. The Department of Children and Families finally called upon the Guatemala Maya Center when they discovered they needed volunteers to help translate but Gamwell said that request came two days after the event started.
“We have two DCF staff that work at our location and volunteers that always help us get the job done, but we didn’t even get notified until Thursday that there was a need for us to be there," he said. “Some big issues in Palm Beach County are the diversity of languages, but literacy is also a big issue.”
Gamwell said if DCF decides to offer more assistance in South Florida in the near future, his staff needs more training from DCF.
“We started getting calls from people in line saying, 'What do we do? What are the requirements to apply?'” he said. "A lot of these things we didn’t have answers to because we hadn’t been trained or prepared by DCF."
Gamwell says the center will need more volunteers when the need comes again.
“If we have a little bit of notice, we can get them ready and organized to support the families in need." he said. “Palm Beach County has some amazing social services and if there is a future event, we encourage coordination between those agencies."
DCF issued the following statement on Monday regarding the assistance sites:
Public safety is paramount and is DCF’s first priority as we operate assistance sites throughout the state. DCF will continue to follow the direction of local law enforcement in every community to ensure the safety of those we are committed to serving. DCF defers to local law enforcement for all determinations related to traffic or public safety issues. DCF has aggressively pursued actions to ensure operations are as expeditious, safe, and efficient as possible. Following the conclusion of the Food for Florida program statewide, DCF will conduct a thorough after action review of all operations.
DCF told WPTV that more dates in Broward and Miami-Dade counties are planned but they are still working on the specifics. No plans are set at this time for additional dates in Palm Beach County.