FEMA grants available for flood victims, but red tape may await

August 27, 2010
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For Austin residents whose homes flooded in the July 23 storm, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is, President Barack Obama has declared Cook County a federal disaster area, opening the floodgates, so to speak, for clean-up dollars from Washington, D.C.

The bad news is, getting those dollars can be a confusing process, one wrought with red tape and dashed hopes. Luckily, though, there are several ways to get help through the process.

These were the lessons learned at a community meeting Tuesday night at Austin’s Hope Community Church, where more than 100 residents flocked for advice about their moldy carpeting and water-logged walls.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Small Business Administration (SBA) told the crowd how to go about filing for the federal reimbursement money, which is available since Obama declared the disaster zone on Aug. 19.

The first step, FEMA agents said, is filling out an application by calling FEMA at 1-800-621-FEMA or visiting www.disasterassistance.gov.

For those without Internet access, State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-Chicago) has arranged for seven local schools to open their computer labs to the public today, Friday, Aug. 27, from 5 to 7 p.m., so residents may complete online FEMA applications. (Information about those schools can be found below.)

Emergency workers will also be setting up Disaster Recovery Centers in the coming weeks, FEMA representatives said. These offices will be staffed with relief workers who can help people fill out aid paperwork.

But for anyone who’d been expecting a fat check from the government to replace a soggy Nintendo Wii, Tuesday’s meeting may have provided a sobering message.

“It’s all need-based,” said Tumia Romero, who spoke at the meeting on behalf of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (7th). “That means if you’ve got five TVs in your house and one of them is damaged in the basement, they might say you don’t need another TV.”

In fact, FEMA’s highly coveted grant money is only given out in select situations, said FEMA spokesman Mark Peterson. Possible uses include replacement costs for necessities like furnaces, home repairs to get homes “safe and sanitary,” and lodging expenses for folks who were displaced following the storm.

That means the average basement damage likely won’t qualify for money, Peterson said, because a basement generally isn’t an “essential living area.”

But for residents who qualify, a loan from the Small Business Administration could be a long-term solution to rebuilding, said SBA spokeswoman Alana Chavez. Homeowners can borrow up to $200,000 at 2.5 percent interest, while business owners – including landlords – can borrow up to $2 million. Repayment terms can be as long as 30 years.

Representatives from each agency hammered home one point throughout the night – fill out those aid applications, and soon. The deadline isn’t until Oct. 18, but they urged residents to submit their paperwork as soon as possible to avoid a backlog.

As of Monday, more than 17,000 people in Illinois had registered with FEMA, said agency spokeswoman Kim Anderson, and the agency has approved $9.4 million in aid statewide.

Here is some additional information covered at Tuesday’s meeting.

How do I apply for federal aid?

There are three ways you can apply: call 1-800-621-FEMA (or for hearing-impaired, 1-800-462-7585) between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.; visit FEMA’s web site (www.disaster.gov); or visit one of FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Centers, which will be set up in the coming weeks.

What schools will be open today, Friday, Aug. 27, so I can complete my FEMA application online?

State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford has arranged for seven local schools to open their doors from 5 to 7 p.m. today so the public may apply for FEMA aid online. Those schools are:

Hay Elementary, 1018 N. Laramie Ave.

Leland Elementary, 5221 W. Congress Pkwy.

May Elementary, 512 S. Lavergne Ave.

McNair Elementary, 4820 W. Walton St.

Spencer Elementary, 241 N. Lavergne Ave.

Christ the King Jesuit College Prep.,  5088 W. Jackson Blvd.

West Side Learning Center-Malcolm X, 4624 W. Madison St.

Please bring a photo ID, Social Security numbers for everyone in the household ages 18 and older; gross income for everyone in the household ages 18 and older; address and phone number where damages occurred; how FEMA can contact the applicant; and insurance company name and type.

What happens after I submit my application?

After you answer some questions regarding your income, employment status and residence, the FEMA representative will schedule an appointment for an inspector to come to your home or business. That meeting usually takes place within a week. The inspector will assess the damage and may ask to see receipts or other information about repair work you’ve done. Shortly after that meeting, you will receive a letter explaining what kind of assistance is available to you, if any. If you qualify, you can accept your payment in a check or by direct deposit.

When did the damage have to occur for me to qualify?

Flood damages must have occurred between July 22 and Aug. 7, 2010.

If I didn’t save my receipts, can I still get reimbursed for repair work to my home?

Yes. Other proof of repair work, such as photos of the damage, can be used instead of receipts. “We’re going to work with you,” FEMA spokesman Peterson said.

What happens if I get turned down for both a loan and a grant?

If you fail to qualify for both a FEMA grant and a Small Business Administration loan, FEMA workers will refer you to a voluntary organization. You may also ask to have your case re-evaluated, or work  with a specialist to see if there is a way you might qualify for a grant or loan.

If I’ve already reported my damage to a local official or by calling 3-1-1, do I still have to apply to FEMA?

Yes. If you’ve simply reported your damage to a congressional member or 3-1-1, that information has not gotten to FEMA.

Can I apply for federal aid if I have insurance?

Yes, but FEMA will not duplicate what you get from your insurance company. FEMA support will only kick in if your assessed, approved damages are higher than the amount covered by your insurance policy.

Can I apply for federal aid if I am unemployed?

Yes. “Employment status doesn’t matter” for a FEMA grant, Peterson said – though it could disqualify you from getting an SBA loan.

What local organizations can help me clean up my flood-damaged home?

Westside Health Authority has a crew of men available to help residents, especially the elderly, get their homes back in order. Services are free of charge. For information, call 773-622-8477.

austintalks.org@gmail.com

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