As flood recovery enters a new phase, FEMA officials are finding a lot of confusion – and some anger – about the myriad of aid available on federal and state levels.
As of Tuesday, 128,000 households have filed for assistance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved $315 million in temporary housing, home repairs and other immediate needs, said Darrell Habisch, a FEMA officer at what will be the largest disaster center in the area when it opens Wednesday.
Habisch doesn’t know how many victims of the flooding have not yet registered. But the new center at Celtic Studios in Baton Rouge will handle both new applications and registered applicants trying to figure out where aid is available and why they didn’t get more.
Flood victims are hearing about all sorts of programs available and often mix up which agency is providing what relief.
“We’re going into the next meaty part: People are now reviewing their determination letters. Sometimes they get angry. Most of the time they’re confused,” Habisch said, sitting on Stage 6, where Rihanna fought off aliens in “Battleship” and Tom Cruise flew in a bubble ship for “Oblivion.”
The massive 30,800 square foot building is set up to help the new applicants and those who have already registered sort out their options among a vast array of recovery support, he said.
“When you’re putting all of the programs together, it can cause confusion, but it’s also part of the solution,” Habisch said.
Disaster aid is not a one-size fits all affair as each individual applicant comes from different circumstances, has different needs and qualifies for different programs at different levels.
FEMA basically serves as clearinghouse, the first stop where flood victims apply for relief. But the agency, at this stage, basically gives out tax-free grants of up to $33,000, regardless of income levels, as part of the Individuals and Households Program, or IHP.
“FEMA is not an insurance company. We’re focused on immediate needs,” Habisch said.
The first sentence in the program’s application is that the money only applies to losses not covered by insurance. A majority of those impacted did not have flood insurance, which would have covered those needs. Homeowners’ insurance specifically excludes flood damage.
The fourth sentence states that the grants “will not cover all of your losses.”
But, IHP can help pay for temporary housing in hotels and apartments, provide assistance for home repairs and construction, for disaster-related medical and dental costs, new clothing, furnishings, tools, vehicles, moving and storage expenses, and a number of other expenses.
FEMA provides two months rental assistance for people made homeless after a disaster.
FEMA will approve checks for all manner of losses and survivors can come back apply for more money as needed, said Auria Ramiu, the crew leader for FEMA’s individual assistance housing team.
“That’s not uncommon,” she said.
But all the money victims receive from FEMA cannot exceed a $33,000 limit, Ramiu added. The total amount of the grant is set by Congress.
Vehicles can be included in the IHP grant. But drivers with comprehensive coverage likely won’t receive aid because insurance companies are supposed to pay. Drivers with liability only policies may receive some help from FEMA, but again it would fall under the $33,000 cap, she said.
Obviously, $33,000 doesn’t cover much – and the average grant is less than $8,000 – but it’s not designed to. Other programs are available that can help the uninsured, she said.
“The vast majority of money in recovery comes from the SBA,” Ramiu said. “They are more flexible because it’s a loan.”
The U.S. Small Business Administration has loans available to cover uncompensated losses for qualified homeowners – up to $200,000 to repair and furnish a disaster damaged residence or buy a new one – at interest rates from 1.56 percent to 3.13 percent.
Renters can borrow up to $40,000 to replace possessions.
Businesses, which do not qualify for the FEMA IHP grants, can borrow up to $2 million for physical damage and economic injuries in loans with interest rates below 4 percent.
The SBA has approved more than $35 million in federal disaster loans for Louisiana businesses and residents impacted by the flooding.
The state of Louisiana also has several recovery programs available for some people.
The Shelter at Home program is a state program that FEMA encourages flood victims to look into. “It’s a great solution,” Habisch said, noting FEMA will give applicants the number, but they will have apply with the state.
Through Shelter at Home, homeowners can get up to $15,000 worth of basic repairs to get them back into their houses. It comes at no cost to the homeowners.
Under the current state and federal disaster funding level, the state will pay 25 percent and the federal government will pay 75 percent of the costs of the program.
More than 5,400 people whose homes were damaged have applied.
The state also can give storm victims, who during normal times have too much income to qualify for food stamps, SNAP cards that will help buy food. Also workers who have lost their jobs or have been laid off because of the disaster can apply through the state for unemployment compensation.
Some of the complaints FEMA officials are hearing come from victims whose neighbors already had their properties inspected, Habisch said. FEMA inspectors verify damage. It’s necessary step to receiving FEMA aid.
Part of the problem is that water had not receded when the victims filed their initial claims and their property was inaccessible. “They need to update their applications,” Habisch said. The system that creates the lists that prioritize inspectors’ work assignments, postpones buildings that they can’t get to.
Habisch said that if FEMA’s determination letter rejects aid, the applicant should appeal. Often, the application wasn’t signed or is missing a necessary document. They will help the applicants get the necessary data to continue.
“People need to remember: It’s a process, Habisch said.