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The Federal Emergency Management Agency How FEMA Can Help

When it comes to rebounding and rebuilding after a natural or man-made disaster, nothing is simple. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) exists to help with the process, but getting that help can be complicated. You have to know what FEMA can and can’t do for you, how to ask for its assistance, and how to tailor your request to meet the agency's requirements. 

First Steps

In the wake of some catastrophic event, the first step to take is to find out whether your situation even qualifies for FEMA assistance. Damaging as they can be, an ordinary rainstorm or gusty windstorm probably won’t cut it. You need a really substantial flood, a tropical storm, hurricane, tornado, or other event big enough to qualify as an honest-to-goodness disaster.

“Only a governor or the leader of a federally-recognized [native] tribe can make a request for a federal disaster declaration,” says Danon Lucas, External Affairs Specialist for FEMA Region 4. “The request is made through the regional FEMA office. State and federal officials conduct a preliminary damage assessment (PDA) to estimate the extent of the disaster and its impact on individuals and public facilities. This information is included in the governor's request to show that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the local governments and that federal assistance is necessary.”

Your condo, co-op, or homeowners association should let the local or county emergency management staff know that your common-interest community needs to be included as part of the PDA, advises Evan Rosenberg, bureau chief of recovery for the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM). 

FEMA offers two kinds of assistance: public and individual. “Public assistance is applied towards infrastructure, making a community whole—public works, utilities, roads, and so forth,” says Aaron Gallaher, the FDEM’s communications director. “Individual assistance is applied to survivors who have damaged homes and personal property.”

After a Disaster

Following a disaster declaration, FEMA will set up Disaster Recovery Centers with local-access phone numbers, and announce their location and contact information via radio, TV, a website, and online social media outlets. If the power is out, you can use your car battery to keep your cell phones and tablet computers charged—assuming your car hasn’t drowned or blown away. “In the hardest-hit areas where people have no access to infrastructure, our staff members will go door-to-door to contact survivors and make sure their needs are addressed,” Gallaher says.

The following post-disaster checklist applies equally to individual residents and to a common-interest community association’s board and management:

• First make sure everyone is safe and accounted for.

• Evaluate the property and document the damage. Take photos. 

• Prevent further damage. For instance, board up broken windows and cover that hole in the roof with plastic so the leak doesn’t get worse. Keep all receipts for materials, services, and so forth. 

• Contact your insurance company, and call FEMA at 800-621-FEMA (3362) or visit www.disasterassistance.gov to apply online. 

• Pay attention to and follow the instructions given by insurers, FEMA reps, and other emergency personnel. Complete the claim forms. Don’t skip any boxes. Then sign the forms.

• File your claims. 

• Be patient. 

Gallaher warns that you shouldn’t look to FEMA to meet all of your post-disaster needs. “FEMA individual assistance is not a second insurance to make you whole,” he says. “There will still be some gaps. FEMA assistance is to help you fill the gaps between what your insurance will cover and what your means are. That might mean something different for different people.”

Because FEMA won’t duplicate your insurance coverage, it has to wait until your insurance claim is paid before determining what it can pay you. Rosenberg explains that although FEMA doesn’t interact with insurers directly, it will ask applicants for insurance documents to demonstrate their need for additional individual assistance.

Timing is Critical

The timing of these steps is critical, says Ken Skalitzky, Emergency Management Director at Volunteer Florida, the state’s lead agency for volunteers and donations before, during, and after disasters. “Board members and managers should encourage all condo owners to call both their insurance agent and FEMA,” he says. 

Skalitzky emphasizes that calling one’s insurance company, registering with a voluntary agency, or contacting anyone else is no substitute for completing FEMA’s application process. “In Florida, many people don’t call FEMA because they think their insurance company will take care of it, but if you wait to go to FEMA until after the insurance claim is paid, it may be too late to register with FEMA.”

“The routine deadline is 60 days from the date of the disaster declaration,” he continues. “It can be extended by a request from the state. After the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, it was extended multiple times, but it depends on the actual disaster. After the Groundhog Day tornado (which struck The Villages near Ocala on February 2, 2007), the deadline was not extended.”

Skalitzky says that when you apply to FEMA, it will set your file aside until you come back with the insurance settlement and ask for more help. “FEMA is not going to reach out,” he explains. “FEMA will wait for you to take the initiative.” This often happens with people who are found ineligible by their insurance company because they didn’t have flood insurance, and then they don’t go back to FEMA.

“Read through the entire letter you get from FEMA,” Skalitzky warns. “The first thing the letter says is you have been found 'ineligible for assistance,' but the paragraph before ‘Sincerely yours’ says if you provide this additional information, you may be found eligible. In that correspondence it will say, ‘You said you have insurance. When you get your settlement, give us a call.’”

Condo Discrimination?

For public assistance, FEMA can involve state and local governments, and certain private nonprofit organizations, to pay part of the costs of rebuilding a community's damaged infrastructure, says Lucas. However, he notes, “Generally, condominium associations do not meet eligibility requirements for FEMA public assistance.”

After the chaotic Florida storm seasons of 2004 and 2005, many gated and shared-ownership communities learned that they weren’t entitled to the same FEMA debris-removal services as their neighbors outside the gates. “As a result, members in these gated communities were forced to pay for their own debris removal, which for some communities posed a significant hardship,” says Donna DiMaggio Berger, a shareholder in the Becker & Poliakoff law firm and a member of the College of Community Association Lawyers.

“A few Florida cities did pay for debris removal for gated communities inside their borders, even though they were informed by FEMA that they would not be reimbursed for such services,” Berger says. “There has been an outcry ever since that FEMA revise its policies to be more inclusive, but so far those pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Dealing with the discriminatory policies of FEMA should have taught most associations by now that having fully funded reserves at their disposal is the best way to handle life's uncertainties.”

The SBA Alternative

Berger says the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) “is an alternate source of reasonable funding for many associations in the aftermath of a disaster. It is important for communities to use experienced legal counsel to help navigate the application process.”

Low-interest, long-term SBA loans also are available to individuals in declared disaster areas to bridge the gap between claims paid and outstanding losses. The application process for individuals is relatively straightforward; most people won’t need an attorney to apply. The loan becomes a second mortgage on the recipient’s home.

Once normalcy is re-established, the monthly SBA payment typically becomes a routine part of a household’s budget, but it should be only a short-term solution. Otherwise, if you live in your house for years and make only the monthly payments, the interest will mount up. 

A recipient of a 30-year loan in 2006 used the proceeds to buy a new computer system. Now his equipment is obsolete, while his loan still has 20 years to run. He should pay it off sooner, assuming he has the money to do so. Otherwise, his old computer system will become increasingly costly. When he ultimately sells his home, the remaining balance will be paid off from the sale proceeds at closing.

An Ounce of Prevention

The best time to mitigate or prevent damage from a hurricane or other disaster is before it strikes. “If a disaster occurs, the things you did to prepare for it will help make your recovery time much less lengthy, and make the FEMA funds available go further,” Gallaher says

FEMA’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, contains advance to-do lists for every conceivable kind of disaster at its www.ready.gov website. Any of these lists even remotely involving water includes a recommendation to buy flood insurance, and not just for waterfront properties. One in four National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) claims are for homes outside high-risk zones. 

“Flooding is the most costly, and most frequent, natural disaster in the United States,” Lucas says. “You can purchase flood insurance no matter your flood risk. It doesn't matter whether your flood risk is high or low, you can buy flood insurance as long as your community participates in the NFIP.” 

Remember, though, that you can’t buy flood insurance as a hurricane or tropical storm approaches. The coverage typically requires a 30-day waiting period.

Condo associations are eligible for the NFIP’s Residential Condominium Building Association Policy. If your condo is in a high-risk area, your board has a fiduciary obligation to buy flood insurance on the structure and the contents of its common areas. Elsewhere, it’s still a good idea.

Skalitzky recommends Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training so the residents, board members, and staff of your common-interest community will know what to do before, during, and after a disaster. CERT training is free, but involves a time commitment. Conducted under FEMA auspices, often by local fire departments or emergency-management offices, it trains team members to assist others in their neighborhood or workplace during and after an event when professional responders aren’t immediately available to help. 

George Leposky is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator. 

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