Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How to Survive FEMA's Disaster Application Process, Part II

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 of the rebuilding process, or at least as much as you can squeeze out of them. 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 generally focused 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.
Here are seven specific pieces of advice for your application and post-disaster process:

-The FEMA application will ask you if your home has been damaged, to which you can answer “Yes”, “No” or “Unknown”. If you were evacuated from your home and don’t know if there was damage, put ‘Yes’ anyway. If you put ‘Unknown’, your application goes to Narnia and you will find it difficult to get aid.

-Similarly, when asked if you are willing to relocate, put ‘Yes’. It doesn’t mean ‘are you willing to move away permanently’, it’s determining whether you are going to need rental assistance for a temporary move during repairs. If you say no, you’ll have a hard time getting rental assistance even if you do move out of your house for a time.

-If the information on your application is not perfect and complete, it will be denied*. You can appeal this once you’ve gotten the correct information, but it is a long and arduous process. For this reason, make sure you’ve got your stuff together as best you possibly can before starting the application process. A few days’ wait won’t make much difference. If your important documents were destroyed in the flood, call the relevant agency (the city or state DMV for drivers’ licenses, the Social Security Agency for social security cards, etc) for replacements. In New York, you could sometimes find document-replacement people sharing space at FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs). Check your local DRCs for similar aid.

-One application per household; more than that gunks up the works. Make sure when you apply that you’re the only one in your family applying.

-As I advised in the last post, document everything. Keep the receipts for everything you buy after the disaster, for hotel bills, contractors’ bills, wet-dry vacuums, everything. If your FEMA inspector stayed for twenty minutes and didn’t look in the garage where you told him to look, and you later want to dispute the damage estimate he assigned to you, it’s really helpful to have documentation. What day did he come? What did he say? What did or didn’t he do? Document, document, document.

-Please, please, fill out the packet from the Small Business Administration if you get it. Canvassing door-to-door, people generally gave me one of two reasons why they didn’t:
they weren’t a small business or they didn’t want a loan. To the first: despite its name, the SBA extends loans to individuals as well as small businesses, so you can totally apply. To the second: Even if you don’t want a loan, apply anyway. You’re not obligated to take anything that the SBA offers you. And if they do not offer you a loan, if they decline your application, you will be put back into the FEMA system and considered for other FEMA benefits. This can ONLY happen if you apply for a loan and are declined. If you apply for a loan, are approved and turn down the offer, it’s no skin off FEMA’s nose; the process simply ends there. Basically, nothing bad can come from filling out the SBA app; either you get considered for other monies, you get a loan offer, or nothing. 

--> Insurance. Make sure you know all the ins and outs of your insurance policy. Do you have flood insurance? What is the deductible? Will it pay your rent for a time if you’re displaced? Will it pay full value for your damaged appliances, or some kind of adjusted depreciated value? Will they cover sewer backups? What about your homeowners’; will damage from wind-driven rain or debris, say, be covered by them? All of this stuff is good to know in advance, so shake some answers out of your insurance company or companies.

EDIT: As pointed out by Dover in a comment on Part I, flood insurance typically will not cover the contents of your home unless you have a rider for contents. S/he also notes that flood insurance tends not to cover damage outside the foundations of your home, such as to a well on the property; I have no personal experience with this bit, but it seems to fit with the whole.

*I have argued long and strenuously that there should be a different, friendlier process for people who don’t have access to all their important documents. However, nobody listened to me, so this is how to deal with the process that currently exists.

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