Published September 28. 2011 4:00AM Updated September 28. 2011 11:57AM
Norwich - More than 1,000 people lined up quietly outside the state Department of Social Services building here Tuesday to request compensation for losses of food from Tropical Storm Irene, mute testimony to the hardships faced by many during the state's economic slump.
"These are hard times, and they're getting worse," said Angela Gambro of New London, who missed work and lost a refrigerator full of food when electricity went out after the storm struck the area Aug. 28.
By Monday afternoon, the state Department of Social Services estimated 9,314 people statewide had applied for assistance under the program. People said word was spreading about the program in neighborhoods, at work and through local churches.
Gambro, her mother, Linda, and friend, Norma Alamo, of New London said even fairly small losses from the storm added up to big problems for those who are living on the edge because of high gas prices and escalating medical expenses.
The working poor feel the effects of a bad economy more than anyone else, they said, but receive little assistance because they make a few dollars more than the threshold for aid.
Gambro called the federal help a "once-in-a-lifetime thing" for those who need it most. "Anything you can do to get help, you just have to take advantage of it," she said. "It's either wait in line … or don't eat."
Federal disaster-relief grants for Irene losses, distributed in the form of a debit-type card, range from $200 to $952, depending on the size of a family. People on food stamps were not eligible, nor were those whose take-home pay and liquid assets for a single person exceeded $2,186 a month or $3,859 for a family of four.
Only food purchases qualify for the assistance program.
Gambro, who lives with her mother, said a friend of hers had fed Ramen noodles, at 22 cents a package, to her children for several days to make ends meet before receiving money from the program five days after applying for the aid.
"I guess we'll starve for five days and get ready to eat after that," she said. "I don't even have mayonnaise in my refrigerator - no ketchup, nothing."
People in the crowd - representing a wide assortment of ethnic backgrounds and composed mostly of the young and middle-aged - said they were braced to wait up to five hours before handing application forms to Social Services department staff.
Some who arrived at 6 a.m. found 100 people ahead of them. The lines didn't start moving until 8:30.
"It's insane," said Elizabeth Munoz of Ledyard, standing at the back of the line in the late morning with her daughter, Melanie.
The crowd, congregating near the Uncas on Thames campus on West Thames Street, was four to five times bigger than Monday's turnout but better behaved, perhaps because of the cooler weather, said Trooper Thomas Fabian.
"Yesterday there were issues with people cutting in line," Fabian said. "It was getting confrontational. That's why we were called in about halfway through."
The Norwich office joined 11 other Social Services branches across the state in taking applications starting last week under the federal Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) for low-income state residents who lost work, property or shelter because of Irene.
Tuesday was to be the last day to apply but, with so many still in line at 3:30 p.m., state workers issued rain checks so the application process could be finished at a later time.
"I lost all the food in my freezer," said Melanie Smith of New London, who was waiting in line with friend Marie Cornish of Groton.
Ivan Brown of Norwich said it cost him $600 to remove a huge tree that fell on his property. He also lost hundreds of dollars in food after being without power for three days, he said.
"It's not like we don't work," Brown said. "You're looking at people who work. … It's disaster relief, and that's what it's there for."