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How to Seek FEMA Help After Harvey

FEMA eligibility rules may not be clearly explained.  Here are the main things you need to know. This article was written by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

Who Should Apply

Anyone who suffered disaster-related loss, including homeowners, renters, drivers, and workers who lost jobs. One application per household. Only one household member, who could be a minor child, must have legal immigration status. You must live in one of the counties declared as a disaster area.

Application

By phone to 1-800-621-3362 or online using www.disasterassistance.gov.  You will need: Social Security number of one family member, even a minor child; current and pre-disaster addresses; phone number; type of insurance, if any; total household annual income; bank account number; and a description of your disaster losses. Keep handy the application number that FEMA gives you. You should photograph your disaster losses as soon as possible and have the photos on your phone available at inspection

Inspection

Inspectors are temporary independent contractors, not FEMA employees.  Some are good at inspection, others are not.  You must be present at inspection. The amount of money you get depends on the type and quantity of damage recorded by the inspector. Inspectors only record type and quantity of damage, and do not record explanations of their decisions. So to get an accurate inspection you should:

  • Politely insist that the inspector view all of the disaster damage even if the inspector is rushed;
  • Ask the inspector to show you exactly what type and quantity of damage the inspector recorded as disaster-related, and what measurement the inspector recorded as the high-water mark in your home;
  • If the inspector does not record damage that you believe was caused by the disaster, you should ask and see if the inspector can give you a good explanation for why he or she did not record the damage; and
  • Consider using your phone to record a video of the inspection, and writing down your experience with the inspector immediately after the inspection is done, which could help later if you need to appeal.

Decision

Within about 10 days after inspection, FEMA will send a letter to your post-disaster address. The letter will state FEMA’s codes for its decisions (i.e. “Ineligible—Insufficient Damage”) and the amount of money that FEMA will deposit in your bank account, if any. The letter will not explain how FEMA calculated any amount of assistance that it provides, and may not allow you to understand why FEMA denied assistance.

Appeal

You have 60 days to appeal if you disagree with FEMA’s decision. FEMA requires you to explain why you appeal even if FEMA has not explained why it denied assistance. You cannot fully understand the reasons for FEMA’s decision unless you first request your “file” in writing. So as soon as possible, send a written request for your file to the address listed in FEMA’s decision letter. Otherwise your file may not arrive before your appeal deadline.  If you can, you should attach the following to your appeal:

  • (a) photographs of disaster damage;
  • (b) statements from neighbors or government officials or others who know about the damage;
  • (c) receipts or other financial documents showing when the damaged items were last repaired or replaced; and
  • (d) a contractor’s signed estimate showing the cost to repair disaster damage.

Estimate

FEMA will likely reject your appeal unless you support it with a construction contractor’s estimate.

FEMA prefers estimates from a contractor:

  • (a) who physically inspected the property;
  • (b) limited the estimate to damage caused by the disaster (i.e. part of a roof if the disaster did not damage the whole roof); and
  • (c) is available to talk to FEMA.
    • You may not be able to find any contractor who is willing to give you such an estimate. If not, you should explain to FEMA in your appeal who you tried to contact and why you could not get an estimate, including whether you had the money to pay a contractor to write an estimate.