Monday, April 22, 2013

How to Survive the FEMA Disaster Application Process, Part I

You’ve made it through the natural or man-made disaster that struck your town or city, and now you’re wondering what comes next. Non-profit agencies such as the Red Cross, Convoy of Hope or the Salvation Army will be there to take care of your basic food, clothing and shelter needs. Your insurance company or companies will take care of their piece. But what about the Federal Emergency Management Agency? What about the Small Business Administration? What can they do for you, and what should you do in order to navigate their disaster assistance process and get help in the quickest way possible?

Here, from a current FEMA Corps member, is your guide to getting disaster assistance from FEMA. Part I will generally focus on what you should expect from FEMA and its partner agencies, in terms of assistance and how you get it. Part II will cover the tips, tricks and pitfalls I’ve witnessed in eight months of FEMA Corps work, including four months working in Hurricane Sandy relief.


-First of all: FEMA does not provide food, clothing and shelter. Your local and state governments, as well as the non-profit aid agencies mentioned above, will take care of that. FEMA may eventually give you money to replace your personal property (we’ll get to that), but it will not hand out physical items to you. Also, FEMA will not pay to replace food. If your power goes out for two weeks and the food in your refrigerator spoils, you may be able to get some food from voluntary agencies, but FEMA will not reimburse you for the lost food.

-The guiding principle of FEMA, and something that is not well-known outside of FEMA itself, is that the agency exists only to fill in the cracks when all other sources of aid have failed. Here’s an example: If you have flood insurance and your home gets flooded, and your insurance policy covers all of your losses, FEMA has nothing to do with you. If your home gets flooded and your policy doesn’t cover everything, or you don’t have flood insurance at all, that’s when FEMA can help you… up to a point. The absolute maximum amount of money that FEMA can give you is $31,900, which is fixed by Congress. Critical caveat: most people will not get $31,900 from FEMA. That is the maximum, and it is seldom reached.

-Registration: Step one of the FEMA disaster process is to register with FEMA. You will need: your social security number, the address and phone number of your damaged dwelling, an address and phone number where you can be reached, and possibly your bank account information (if you opt to have assistance direct-deposited into your bank account). You’ll be asked a few questions about the damage to your home, whether you’ve incurred certain kinds of expenses and so forth; we’ll get into those tomorrow. Finally, you’ll get a FEMA registration number--memorize this! If you’re doing this in person at a Disaster Recovery Center, ask for a “Help After a Disaster” recovery booklet; it’s amazingly helpful but isn’t always handed out.

-Rental Assistance: If you’ve been forced to leave your home due to a disaster, FEMA can help you through their Rental Assistance program. They’ll help you find a “rental resource”, or a place to stay in the medium-to-long term, and pay your rent for up to eighteen months while your home is being repaired. Again, this comes out of the $31-9. You’ll have to get recertified that your home is still unlivable every so often. 

-The Inspector: If you suffered damage to your home, an inspector will contact you and set up an appointment to look at your house with you. This inspection will be the primary method FEMA uses to determine how much damage you had. It is completely okay to clean things up before the inspector gets there; having your home be livable is more important than keeping it ready for the inspector. If you do this, however, make absolutely certain you document the way the house was when it was damaged or unlivable. Pictures and video and lots of them are very helpful here. Theoretically, the inspector will call you 7-10 days after you send in an application, but in a big disaster, this may mushroom.

-Repair & Rebuilding: It sounds like a lot, but for refurbishing a home, $31-9 is really not very much money. It is supposed to be enough to make your home “safe, sanitary and functional”, not to put it back together the way it was. Insurance is the primary way that most homes get fixed. Critical caveat II: Your insurance claim must be settled before FEMA will give you any assistance for repair and rebuilding. This can take a while, because flood insurance companies can be swamped (pun done) or jerks. You have up to a year to submit your insurance paperwork, because that’s how bad the delays can be. If you're waiting on an insurance claim and your neighbor doesn't have insurance, they will probably get R & R money before you do. That's just how it happens.

-ONA, or Other Needs Assistance (Medical/Dental/Funeral): If you have these needs, FEMA can help with them, although it all comes out of the $31-9. I never dealt with anybody who had these costs in Sandy’s aftermath, so I don’t have much information about them. I know that it’s a separate program, ONA, while the two programs above are part of the Individual and Households Program (IHP). Most of my work had to do with IHP, so I apologize.

-Small Business Administration: After you’ve passed through those steps above, you should get a packet in the mail from the SBA. It will offer you an application for a low-interest loan. I’ll discuss this one more fully tomorrow, but for right now I’ll just say, fill the son of a bitch out and send it back in.

-ONA (Again): If the SBA denies your loan application, you’ll be considered for other miscellaneous expenses. These include damage to a car, reimbursement of your cleanup gear that you bought (e.g. a chainsaw to chop up downed trees, a pump to get stuff out of your home and so on. Not everything is eligible for reimbursement, it changes with the disaster, so ask!), the cost of renting a storage locker for your stuff, etc. Ask about where personal property falls; it may be in here, but again, I am not sure because this is not my home turf.

3 comments:

Dover said...

This is actually an excellent summary - one that took me six months to learn. I really wish I knew this Pre-Sandy, or at least soon after. I have slowly learned all of the above, except ONA, although I don't think I need that... however since SBA has denied my loan (laid off the week before Sandy and no way to repay said loan)... and the flood insurance folks are being Jerks and won't cover what everyone tells me is hydrostatic cracks in my basement (that didn't exist prior to flood, and do exist now) - and I have an outstanding estimate for 19K to repair... maybe it will...

btw, I hope that you'll add a segment on "what to do when your physical damage to the house isn't covered by your flood insurance because they want to argue it might be pre-existing" and FEMA's inspector has apparently identified that the total loss was approximately 872$, when even the flood insurance people were willing to say it was 5,372... less the $5K deductible... and help educate all as to the fact that flood ins almost never covers "contents" or anything that is 'outside' of the foundation, like my well.

Andy said...

Thanks for the comment! I put the bit about contents and structures outside the foundation in Part II. I wish I was knowledgeable enough about flood insurance to answer your question about pre-existing damage, but I am not--most of my knowledge was picked up on the fly in Sandy, as we never had any training or courses on it. For the FEMA inspector's report, my advice would be to go through the FEMA appeal process if you haven't already done that, and provide documentation saying that your damage was greater than what they identified. 1-800-621-3362 is the helpline number, as you probably know, and they'll be able to tell you more about the appeal process.

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