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Uvalde school shooting survivors struggle as they await answers

Ahead of the first report into the May 24 Uvalde school massacre, officials are feuding and families are facing financial troubles

Angel wings and a cross hang on a locked gate outside Robb Elementary School on July 11 in Uvalde, Tex. (Eric Gay/AP)

Oscar Orona had a chance to take his son home 33 minutes before the 10-year-old’s class was massacred.

The memory of May 24 haunts. It was awards day at Robb Elementary school. Noah was beaming and asked to leave school with Orona. But Papi had to go to work, and Mami was recovering from surgery at home. Orona thought it better that Noah stay with his friends. The boy said okay and bounded off.

Noah ran to the school building door, stopped and turned around to wave goodbye.

“That was the last time I would see my old son, and now I have a new son,” Orona, 59, said. “He survived physically, but mentally, emotionally, I don’t know who this young man is.”

Noah, 10, survived a gunshot wound in the massacre, in which 19 students and two teachers were killed. But the family’s days are now a carousel of chaos. Medical appointments. Therapy sessions. Victim, council and legal meetings. Calls. Condolences. Rallies and marches. Media leaks. Interviews. Money worries. Heartbreak on repeat.

For the families of Uvalde, Tex., the dead are buried, but there is little peace for the living. Grief stalks downtown. Rage bursts forth from residents. Distrust shrouds every word delivered by officials. Hugs are the currency of solidarity but deliver few answers.

When answers materialize — as in the case of a new 77-minute video leaked this week — it arrives ruthlessly and rips the wounds anew. Recriminations mark every local meeting of the council, county or school board. An exhaustive report on the killings, conducted by Texas House investigators and due this weekend, may help — or may not.

Uvalde’s mayor has accused the state police chief of deception in describing what he said happened to evade responsibility. Col. Steven C. McCraw, in turn, alleged it was the school’s police chief, Pedro “Pete” Arredondo, who failed while in charge. The governor lauded law enforcement’s alleged heroism and later declared himself livid at being misled about their inaction. The school board hasn’t presented a plan for the day school starts — in four weeks.

Already, the circumstances are taking a huge financial toll on those left behind. Some families have been able to survive with generous direct donations or GoFundMes. Funeral costs were covered by a private donor, and some medical needs were met by insurance waivers. But the recovery is far more costly than any expected, several surviving families said. Some have made things work by stringing together the initial emergency federal assistance of $1,400 per family, donated gas cards and grocery gift cards.

But the financial support promised by Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and other officials within days of the shooting has not fully materialized. Abbott promised that no impacted family would have to worry about costs, citing $5 million in state money. But while the government has provided services and help in accessing specific benefits such as health insurance, some families are still having trouble with daily, immediate and unexpected expenses.

Experts say the public dollars extended after a mass shooting tragedy usually do not go directly to families but come in the form of grants to public officials who use the money to contract mental health providers, advocates and other personnel to help victims navigate the assistance available. The Uvalde County commissioners recently approved a contract with a San Antonio organization to run the Uvalde resiliency center, where families go to meet with advocates. The funding is being controlled by District Attorney Christina Busbee, whose office did not respond to questions about the contract or how the promised $5 million in state money will be administered.

Abbott also said every family would be assigned a victim advocate to help them navigate all the resources available, but when asked, several said they were unclear who that person was. Several families said information about how to access public or private funds has been unclear, intermittent or nonexistent.

The governor’s office did not answer specific questions about whether families would receive emergency cash assistance from the $5 million state pledge and directed inquiries to a news release which did not deliver an answer.

While Abbott had pledged to make sure even eyeglasses were paid for, for example, Orona has not received any money to pay for those his son lost that day.

On the private funding side, more than seven memorial funds for Uvalde families are growing and funneling into one large account now worth more than $14 million, but the long process of distributing the money means the families won’t be able to apply for that financial support until fall.

“I’m barely making it,” said Jose Martinez, father of AJ Martinez, who was shot in the leg and grazed by another bullet. “The last of our savings is almost done.”

Martinez is a truck driver, owner and operator, and his wife, Kassandra Chavez, is a homemaker. He would normally be on the road, delivering produce cross-country and bringing in nearly $4,000 a week. But that’s not possible with a traumatized son. Between 160-mile round trips to San Antonio for medical and therapeutic care several days a week are the nights they clean and bandage AJ’s wounds and coax the 9-year-old to sleep.

The family has bills to pay, but they are not the kind of people to ask for help, Chavez said. They said they are confused about what’s available and don’t have time to investigate. Martinez plans to return to work but is seeking routes that keep him close to home in Texas.

“Nobody understands the aftermath for the surviving children,” Chavez said. “Yes, they see our kids walking around, but really, you don’t know. You don’t know what the next morning is going to bring. You don’t know if he’s going to get angry or upset. Anything triggers him and gets him upset. This is our life now, and we can’t change it.”

AJ tries to be strong for his parents, they said, but all they want is for him to let them know when he’s hurting. “We are constantly having to watch him,” Chavez said.

On the bad days, when she needs someone who understands, she calls Abigail Veloz. Veloz is the mother of Miah Cerillo, the 11-year-old who smeared herself with her classmate’s blood and pretended to be dead to elude the gunman’s rifle blasts. It was Miah who called 911 asking for help, using her dead teacher’s phone. Today, Miah can’t shower unless the door is propped open and her mother is nearby.

“Mom? Mom? Are you there?” she calls to her, recalled Veloz, who replied, “Yes, I’m here. I won’t leave you.”

Last week, Miah told her story again to investigators with the district attorney’s office, prompting a night spent awake and upset, her parents trying to console her.

Miguel Cerillo, her father, tried to return to work as finances tightened. But the tire technician’s boss sent him home for 30 days without pay because he could not focus.

“We are a little lost and confused,” Veloz said.

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D) has sent letters to the governor and Busbee seeking clarity about victim compensation and asking for her removal as administrator. None of that has happened.

But a group of volunteers have been working behind the scenes to help Uvalde families. VictimsFirst is an organization of mass shooting victims and survivors who have learned how to best manage donations and ensure they reach those in need.

Together with Jeff Dion of the National Compassion Fund, they pulled together all the private dollars donated into the centralized Uvalde pot. They are also keeping track of commitments from nonprofits that have pledged money, to hold them accountable and monitor whether the checks do or don’t land in the bank accounts of victims and their families.

“When we experience these mass shootings, the one thing you feel is a loss of control,” the organization’s president, Anita Busch, said. “One of the things to help you get back on your feet is being able to make decisions for yourself. That is why this fund exists. It exists so money can go directly to the victims and they can decide what their families need to cope.”

Busch said it’s best to leave the fund open for some time to maximize the amount of donations it receives. If it closes too early, the kind of help families receive is more limited, she said. But Dion said there are mechanisms to give advance payments for families in need.

The fund is holding town halls in the coming weeks to explain the process to Uvalde families, said Mickey Gerdes, a Uvaldean businessman serving on the fund’s steering committee.

Alfred Garza, whose daughter Amerie Jo Garza was killed, recently received cash assistance from a private donor fund to pay bills while he is out of work as a car salesman.

“When everything is quiet and you’re by yourself, I sit here in the living room staring at Amerie’s photo. It’s an 18-by-24 of her last school picture,” Garza said. “I’ll sit here and think about the times we had. I feel like that’s the real hard part: the acceptance, accepting the loss and you have to confront it head-on. But it’s going to be stupid hard.”

There is no amount of money that will fix his son, said Orona, who was in Washington this week marking the recent passage of gun-control measures aimed at stopping future mass shootings. But he’s already trying to make sure Noah will have resources for his recovery.

They have not yet gotten a dime from victim compensation funds, he said. They opened a GoFundMe, but Orona’s plan is to find a lawyer to convert that money into a trust for his son when he becomes an adult.

“I’m going to be 59, my son is 10, so in eight years, I’ll be 67. Will I be able to take care of him if he can’t take care of himself?” he asked.

As they await the first investigative report on what happened May 24, the school shooting victims and survivors say they are bracing themselves for the impact.

“It’s all so overwhelming,” Garza said. “It’s tarnished the town, and it’s not going to go away. And where do we go from here?”