After Hurricane Irma, relief workers poured into South Florida to inspect damaged homes, but one woman said a contractor crossed the line and then mishandled her claim.
Tina Stevens, like many in South Florida, began the process of getting back on her feet after her mobile home in Davie sustained significant water damage from the storm.
“It’s where I work. It’s where I lay my head. It’s where my kids sleep,” Stevens said.
She said a contractor estimated it would cost around $10,000 to make all the repairs. Because of the age of the home, Stevens said it was not considered insurable, so she applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance about a week after she got a visit from an inspector.
“At first he was very polite,” Stevens said. “He kept remarking on how much damage I had.”
The inspector, who Stevens said was named Thomas, worked for Vanguard Emergency Management, which was contracted by FEMA.
Stevens said before leaving, the inspector crossed a line.
“I have about 22 tattoos and he said, ‘Oh, can I see them all?’ And I said, ‘Well, they’re underneath,’ and he was like, ‘Well, can I see them?”
According to Stevens, it’s not unusual for people to ask about her tattoo art, but she said she felt stuck because the man was handling her claim.
“I felt like the implication was there that, ‘I have your case, you have so much damage, let me come in and see your work,’ and so at first I was like, ‘OK, I can send you pictures of the art,’ and he said, ‘No, I want to see them in person,'” Stevens said. “And then it got a little awkward.”
About a week later, Stevens received a letter from FEMA denying her request for assistance. She appealed the decision only to get the same inspector assigned to her case.
“He said, ‘Oh, I have your claim. Do you want me to come by?'” Stevens said.
Through text messages, Stevens said she offered to send updated photos of the damage. She said the inspector later wrote, “You never showed me that tat lol, but yes I’m still here.”
“I responded to him, ‘You never even tried to get to know me,'” Stevens said.
She said she was still trying to engage Thomas while making it clear she was not interested in anything physical. She said he claimed he made a mistake on her first application by checking the wrong box, resulting in the denial.
When asked if she felt like by blowing the inspector off, if affected her financially. Stevens said, “Yes, absolutely, and it kind of did.”
Stevens said she then received a text message from Thomas that said, “What if I was offering to do something for you without expecting nothing back?”
She said he then offered her a sex act, all while her appeal was still pending.
“I made it very clear that I was really disturbed by his actions,” Stevens said. “He knew nothing about me, and here he is again asking for inappropriate things.”
Stevens said she reported the incident to FEMA and Vanguard.
“I was getting nowhere,” she said. “His supervisor was like, ‘Well, I’ll ask him. Maybe they’ll transfer him to a different site.’ That’s not an adequate solution.”
A month after her initial denial, a new letter from FEMA approved Stevens for nearly $4,000 of assistance.
Local 10 News reached out to Vanguard. A representative told us the contractor has been deactivated, adding in a statement, “Vanguard is actively investigating this complaint. We hold our inspectors and contractors to the highest standards of professionalism and ethics, and take claims of misconduct very seriously.”
Stevens said she wants to keep the same thing from happening to the next woman in her position.
“It is totally inappropriate to take advantage of victims and see that they are weak and in need and continue to prey upon them,” she said.
Local 10 News also reached out to FEMA about the incident. A representative said the agency expects a high level of professionalism and takes reports of inappropriate behavior very seriously. They urge anyone with a complaint, issue or request for additional disaster assistance to call the FEMA helpline at 800-621-3362.