To find out who is qualified and how people can apply for help, WMNF News spoke with Keith St. Clair, a public information officer with FEMA.
We also hear whether renters can get help, if property owners who are under-insured are eligible for assistance and how people who lost jobs can apply for compensation.
“In the state of Florida, nearly 50 counties have been designated for individual assistance from the federal government. Every county in the bay area of Florida is eligible. So, when you say, ‘Who is eligible for FEMA assistance?’, nearly anybody out there is eligible if they have losses that would be covered. There are lots of different types of assistance, lots of different types of losses. The most common losses are things like rental housing, if your home has damage and is uninhabitable or without power or water or those types of facilities. Other things that are covered are damage to your home, damage to the possessions inside the home.
“What FEMA looks to do is to have people in a safe, secure, and functional environment, you know, as quickly as possible. The cosmetics, we’re not so worried about in the short term, long term solutions we look at too, but, we want to get people in the conditions which are livable as quickly as we can and help folks get back to their normal life, which is a very long process.”
And how does this tie in with your home insurance? Do you have to file a claim with your home insurance first?
“Well, what people need to understand is that FEMA is not an insurance company. It’s not what we do. We don’t replace home insurance. We try and fill in the gaps on insurance. What we can pay for are things that insurance haven’t covered. So, we are able to sort of pick up where some insurance can leave off; if you’ve got losses that are paid for from insurance, we’re not going to double up, we’re not going to give you a payment for something that insurance payment has already covered. But, if you have losses that are beyond what was paid for by insurance, that’s where we hope that we can come in and give you some assistance.
“People should understand as well, that everything is looked at on an individual basis. When people apply for assistance from the federal government, through FEMA, we have somebody look at their losses and we try and figure out all the different ways and different programs under which we can give you some assistance. We’re looking for ways to try and help, not ways to exclude you.”
So, if a homeowner doesn’t have flood insurance, yet their property is unlivable because of water damage, flood damage, that might be someplace where FEMA might come in?
“It can be. What people also need to know is flood insurance. Flood insurance is something you should carry, when you’re living in most areas of Tampa Bay. Obviously, the cost of it is gonna be more, depending on what the risk of it is, but, FEMA does administer the National Flood Insurance Program. There’s already plenty of people making claims and plenty of people making coverage on that. So, we certainly, certainly, encourage people to purchase flood insurance. It’s never too late. It can’t help you for damage that you’ve already taken on because of the storm, but, it can certainly help you for the next one.”
“Underinsured”, what does that mean? When you say that a homeowner is underinsured and then a storm comes along?
“That basically means that they have not taken out enough insurance to cover the value of what they have and that’s where FEMA can try and help, is that if they are underinsured, if they suffer – and this is just throwing numbers off – if they suffer $20,000 worth of losses on a certain thing, yet they only have it insured up to $10,000, it’s that additional $10,000 where FEMA can try and come in and offer some assistance.”
You talked earlier about renters. The home might be insured by the landlord, but, what about people who can’t live in the house, even though they’re paying rent? Should they continue to pay rent and is there assistance there from FEMA?
“Yeah. What people also need to know about that is the fact that, first of all, the coverage is for primary residents. That would mean that the landlord isn’t the one who would necessarily be covered, it’s the person that’s living there. We will pay the landlord and the renter. And that sometimes when there would be a delay in processing or they might get an initial decline of being able to get assistance, because you’ve got multiple people applying for assistance on one address, that’s something we have to go in and take a look at. But, the coverage is for the primary resident. So, if you’re renting, yes, you can absolutely apply if that’s your primary residence, you are the one that has suffered damage. Now, will you get paid for damage to the physical building? No. But, the payment would come in terms of what your possessions are, the damage that you particularly suffered. The damage to the building, that’s something that’s on the landlord. What was damaged within the building, your goods, your possession, that’s yours.”
And what about not being able to live there? Whether there’s no electricity or whether the dwelling is flooded, would a renter be able to seek some relief from FEMA there?
“There is. There are several programs that can give people assistance regarding housing. One of those programs that can help is Transitional Shelter Insurance. This is something that helps people; [it] temporarily puts them in a place where they can live because their residence is unlivable. So, whether they own that residence or whether they’re renting, it’s not gonna make any difference. If it’s uninhabitable, then that’s a way that they can get assistance.
“Something that is very worth pointing out, too, there’s been a lot of rumors that have been going around–and we have social media platform to thank for most of it–that FEMA will make– all you have to do is walk into an office and they’ll give you a voucher for $250 if you’re without electricity for 2-days or if your food was all spoiled when you come back, go to FEMA, they give you a $500 voucher; no, we really want to get the message out that isn’t how it works. But, there is something that’s called Critical Needs Assistance; that is something that it is very quick payment when we are able to determine that you’re eligible, that up to a one-time $500 payment, per household, will go out to survivors after a disaster. You know, that’s for critical needs, really life-sustaining things; food, water, first-aid, prescriptions, infant formula, that type of thing. So, I think that maybe that’s where some folks have heard the $500 number and thought somehow you tell somebody and they tell somebody and it’s got twisted into ‘walk into FEMA and they’ll give you a $500 voucher.'”
What about someone whose work is closed because of the disaster? Is there any way that FEMA would compensate them for lost work?
“That is not part of our mission, but, it is part of the state’s mission that you live in. They need to go to the state of Florida. I believe it’s called The Florida Center for Economic Opportunity. But, basically if they go online and search for Florida Disaster Unemployment it will come up very quickly. It will take you straight to the Florida Jobs website and these are benefits that are available to people who are directly affected by the hurricane and because it’s disaster, there may be some people that will be included in this who might not normally be eligible for unemployment, such as people that are self-employed or farmworkers or people who work on commission. But, that’s a state function and they would need to go to the state.”
And finally, how do people apply for FEMA funds?
“The way that we strongly, strongly recommend, because it is gonna be the fastest way to apply and the easiest for the survivor, is to get online access and go to disasterassistance.gov You can apply 24/7. You can always get in–there’s not going to be any waiting. If you’re unable to do that, the second best way we would say is call 1-800-621-FEMA. That phone number is staffed from 7 in the morning until 11 at night, every night, 7-days a week, as long as there’s need. There are multiple foreign languages available. Those are the two best ways to get assistance. There are disaster survivor assistance teams that are already, in Tampa Bay, on the ground and have been going around to some of the harder hit areas, going door to door asking people if they want to register for assistance. There will be site locations that will be opening up. But, no need to wait for that, you don’t need to register in person. Go online. Call the phone number if you can.”
Meanwhile, in an email Wednesday, Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office announced that the state has been awarded federal Dislocated Worker Grants to provide temporary employment to residents affected by Hurricane Irma. The grants will be administered by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. They provide disaster relief employment in the form of temporary jobs that support storm response and recovery efforts.