For the past few days, it's been the closest thing to a light at the end of the tunnel for many without flood insurance in Louisiana: the mention of a FEMA grant program offering as much as $33,000 to help pay for repairs and replace damaged property.
But officials are cautioning the tens of thousands of flooded homeowners and renters in the 20 parishes now declared federal disaster zones that the program isn’t intended to take the place of insurance and is only a small if important first step toward financial recovery.
“We are not going to be able to make you whole again,” FEMA spokeswoman Robin Smith said. “Congress has tasked us with (making people) safe and secure, safe and sanitary.”
Smith said it’s too early to say how many people will qualify, and that are no estimates so far of what the average or median award will be. She said that while different amounts have been tossed around publicly, she knows of no other figure besides this year's $33,000 cap, which is based on the Consumer Price Index.
“Every single situation is looked at individually,” she said.
In addition to money for housing, payments will be based on the extent of an applicant's damage and the need for things like beds, a television, a stove, a refrigerator, clothes and other essentials. Only the basics will be covered. A couple who live alone in a three-bedroom house, for example, will get reimbursed for only one bed, not three.
Smith said three identical houses that suffer the same damage could generate three different amounts based on how many people are living there, what their occupants’ short-term housing needs are and what they had in insurance coverage.
Automobiles also can be included in the calculation, provided that the applicant can prove ownership and insurance and show that it was destroyed in the flood.
It's not impossible for residents who have flood insurance to get money, depending on how much coverage they have, but the payments cannot be used to duplicate insurance coverage, Smith said.
One thing that will hurt the ability to collect if a person doesn't have flood insurance is if they have collected assistance on their property from FEMA before, for acceptance of money comes with the obligation to buy flood insurance for the property in the future. If they haven't done that, they won't qualify.
The first step is to file a claim with an insurance company, then go to disasterassistance.gov or call (800) 621-3362 to register with FEMA.
Smith said 39,000 people already have registered from the first four parishes declared disasters on Monday, before 16 more were added. The process is first-come, first-served, so the sooner someone registers, the better, she said.
Participants who sign up for direct deposit will get their money quicker, and those who provide a cellphone number can receive text alerts as their case moves through the process. The basic paperwork, however, will be sent through the mail, so participants need to provide an address where mail can be delivered, Smith said.
An inspector will call within a few days after someone signs up, but it could take as long as a week as demand builds. The inspector will assess the property and file the information at the end of the day; payments can be made within 48 hours in some cases.
Residents will get either a check, a notice that money has been deposited in their account or a request for further information.
Smith stressed that although it may be thick with bureaucratic jargon, any letter without payment should be read carefully because it will often include requests for information that could lead to a payment.
“Any letter from FEMA should be looked at as a call to action that we need more info,” she said. “Do not take it simply that you’ve been turned down.”
Smith said residents should not wait to get started on cleaning up and making their homes livable as soon as it is safe, but they should take photographs of the damage first, shooting 360 degrees around each room, opening drawers and photographing their damaged contents.
Those pictures are crucial to getting what you’re entitled to, she said.
Smith said all receipts should be saved, and bids from licensed contractors are also useful if anyone feels they are shorted on the size of their award and wants to file an appeal.
Smith stressed that even those who don’t think they qualify should register for disaster assistance with FEMA and the Small Business Administration, which will at the very least get their names and addresses into the hands of volunteer organizations working in the area.
“You may not get FEMA assistance, but it puts you on the radar for volunteer groups,” she said. “If we don’t know about you, we can’t send help to you.”
Another thing registering with FEMA does is get your information sent to the U.S. Small Business Administration, which during times of disaster provides low-interest loans to homeowners and renters, not just business owners and nonprofits.
SBA spokesman Garth MacDonald said residents don’t have to wait for a phone call and can register at (800) 659-2955 or at sba.gov/disaster, as long as they've registered with FEMA first.
Loans at rates as low as 1.563 percent are available for up to $200,000 for homeowners to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate, and homeowners and renters are eligible for up to $40,000 to repair or replace damaged or destroyed personal property.
Businesses and private nonprofits can get up to $2 million to repair or replace real estate, machinery and equipment, inventory and other assets. Those rates are 4 percent for businesses and 2.265 percent for nonprofits.
MacDonald said the SBA loans should be looked at as an extension of the FEMA grants and as a key tool in trying to recover.
“Our goal is to try to provide some funds to get people as close to pre-disaster conditions as possible,” he said.
Just like with the FEMA grants, MacDonald said, people should apply for the low-interest loans even if they don’t think they qualify, because if they don’t qualify, their names will get kicked back to FEMA for smaller programs that can provide some additional money.
One program Smith cited as an example can compensate people for lost medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, prescription eyeglasses and medications.
Smith also stressed that FEMA does not collect any money for any of the services it provides, so anyone claiming to represent the agency who asks for money is working a scam and should be reported to the police.