FEMA Details Declaration Process For Storm Damage

SNOW HILL — With a state application for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) support pending, FEMA Public Information Officer Michael Wade sat down with The Dispatch to detail what steps property owners should take to address storm damage from Hurricane Sandy.

“A lot of people don’t understand that FEMA just can’t come in here,” said Wade.

Beginning days before Sandy even made landfall in Maryland, Wade said that FEMA resources were in place in preparation for the storm event. After the hurricane hit and Gov. Martin O’Malley declared a state of emergency, Wade revealed that FEMA entered into a “preliminary damage assessment” period, which is still ongoing. FEMA, state, and local emergency assets will be reviewing the impact of Sandy on everything from public facilities to businesses to individual homes. It was last week that O’Malley also requested a Presidential Declaration of Emergency.

FEMA, state, and local agents will be out and about compiling information during this period. Wade is asking any property owners who haven’t already reported storm damage to their local emergency manager to do so now.

Once the information is gathered, it will go into a FEMA report that will end up next to O’Malley’s request for a declaration of emergency on President Obama’s desk. The most important part of that report, according to Wade, is the fact that it is a “consensus agreement” between federal, state, and local observation of storm impact.

“We’re looking at it from the whole community,” said Wade.

Exactly how long it will take Obama to make the call on whether to make a declaration of emergency is hard to tell.

“I’ve seen it take weeks; I’ve seen it take days,” said Wade.

FEMA examines everything from the dispersion of damage, the frequency of disaster events in recent history, the impact to essential governmental services and functions and the level of insurance coverage in place, among many other factors. The determination that FEMA is trying to reach is whether a disaster exceeds state and local capabilities to manage.

If the president decides that Sandy has had that effect on Maryland, what that means for individual homeowners will vary.

“This is on an individual basis … it is based on individual needs,” said Wade.

That means that any house that has sustained damage from the storm may be eligible for FEMA assistance, assuming the declaration is passed. What that assistance might be will vary from property owner to property owner. Some may receive funds directly to be used to re-build. Others may qualify for Small Business Administration (SBA) loans while still others may not be entitled to any assistance.

For example, FEMA does not provide aid if the property damaged is a secondary or vacation home. In those cases, it is left entirely up to insurance, according to Wade.

In the same vein, Wade also advised that any homeowner with insurance who hasn’t yet filed a claim to do so as it won’t affect whether aid is received. He explained that any repairs that are needed should also been done quickly to avoid worsening the damage. With repairs, Wade suggested taking pictures at every step of the process and keeping all receipts and other documentation as proof should reimbursement be sought.

While cooperation with local emergency management should keep the process smooth, Wade underlined a few common problems that can gum up the works for individual applications. One important rule is that only one person per household should ever apply to FEMA for assistance. Multiple applications for the same property could delay the process.

Another important note is that if a low-interest SBA loan is offered but the property owner isn’t interested in a loan, they won’t receive any other form of financial aid from FEMA. While this may irk some property owners who were hoping for money without strings, Wade said that FEMA tries to be as fair as possible while still being reasonable.

“We are responsible for the government’s purse strings,” he said.

Finally, property owners should make sure to read any letters or correspondence with FEMA carefully, even if it says he or she will not be receiving aid, since a mistake could have been made in the assessment process. Wade added all cases are open to appeal.

Wade also warned property owners to be on the watch for con artists looking to take advantage of the hurricane. FEMA, state and local agents are still conducting preliminary assessments and if a Presidential Declaration of Emergency is made, FEMA-employed contractors will be visiting properties for inspections. Whenever approached by someone claiming to be with FEMA, Wade told citizens to ask for identification and be wary if the official requests money or personal information on the spot, as FEMA does not do that.

Visit www.fema.gov for more details.