As Louisiana flood victims work to navigate the assistance that is becoming available to them, FEMA crews are working neighborhoods, disaster recovery centers are opening and officials repeatedly have directed them to disasterassistance.gov, where they can apply online.
Chris Smith, director of FEMA Individual Assistance Division, has been in Louisiana this week, surveying flood-affected areas and spreading the word about programs that people may be eligible for that will aid them in the recovery process.
About 120,000 households have registered for individual assistance from FEMA to date, and the federal agency has authorized more than $130 million in payments so far.
Smith said he expects that figure will grow as people get past their immediate recovery needs and prepare for more long-range plans.
He said already the state has processed many applications that have been submitted online.
"This was more profound than some of the other recent disasters," he said. "It's been a good thing for survivors. It gives them an immediate entry into the system."
This week, as disaster recovery centers began to open, people sought out assistance in person – often experiencing long lines as they began to chart their way though assistance application.
On Monday, about 100 people were in various stages of the process at the New Hope Baptist Church complex in north Baton Rouge.
Donnie Langford rented a house on Antioch Road in south Baton Rouge. Floodwaters from Claycut Bayou started rising Saturday afternoon. By nightfall, he had driven to high ground with three dogs in his pickup truck.
He lost all of his possessions and as a renter did not have flood insurance. He had been at the New Hope Church about four hours and was sitting at his fourth station, waiting to talk to an agent about a SBA loan.
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“I might get some FEMA money, they said. But they wanted me to also fill out the paperwork for a loan too,” Langford said.
Smith said that when people seek FEMA aid several factors are considered, including income level, housing impact and other immediate needs. The individual assessments, which in many cases include in-person property inspections, help determine what people are eligible for on a case-by-case basis.
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FEMA also works to direct people to groups that offer other forms of assistance, he said.
Some are being referred to the Small Business Administration application process for low-interest loans for homeowners and business owners, particularly if their income level is outside the eligibility criteria for other programs. To date, the number of SBA referrals has been about 15,000 of the more than 100,000 applicants, Smith said.
"That's telling me that a small percentage of folks are being referred automatically to SBA and we are taking on a larger portion of the population to get them started on this," he said.
He said that much of the request for assistance to date has been for housing repairs. Rental assistance has also been one of the top components.
"There is substantial damage, but as far as our program is going and the criteria that we have set, it certainly looks like the repair money is jumpstarting," Smith said.
The Advocate's analysis of payouts in high-profile disasters found that although a federal disaster aid program can provide as much as $33,000 per household, grants typically were a fraction of that amount, averaging $8,000 or less.
Smith said that the cap has had little impact so far.
"I don't get a sense right now that we are getting a large percentage of folks that are hitting that cap," he said. "That's telling me that while in many areas the damages are severe, there is also insurance that is covering needs or the needs are not there."
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