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'We've got to find them'

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials are urging hurricane survivors in Florida and other states to apply for federal aid - even if they think they don't need it.

BY SUSAN KIM | ORLANDO, Fla. | November 16, 2004

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials are urging hurricane survivors in Florida and other states to apply for federal aid - even if they think they don't need it.

After the emergency phase of a disaster - when government and voluntary groups may provide necessities such as food, water and shelter - the relief phase involves people checking with their insurance companies, and with FEMA, about disaster-related damages.

At that point, "call FEMA even if you think other people need the money more than you," said a FEMA official.

FEMA representatives need to know about a disaster survivor's insurance settlements in order to make a decision regarding financial aid for that survivor, he added. "Fax your settlement information into FEMA or, until they hear from you, they're not going to do anything," he said.

Federal assistance can range from grants to loans to rental assistance to lodging expenses, he said. FEMA sometimes houses disaster survivors in travel trailers, he said, but that doesn't happen right away.

For hurricane survivors in Florida, FEMA's maximum initial grant for housing repairs is $5,100. "That won't go very far," he said. "That's all that FEMA will provide you for initial housing repairs. If your home is destroyed, you get $10,200."

When disaster survivors call FEMA, they'll be asked about their income, he said. "The FEMA person receiving your call can make a decision as to whether you shall receive a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan application."

The SBA's loan program isn't just for businesses - it's for homeowners, too. "You don't have to be a business," he said. "It's an individual home loan."

Disaster survivors need to fill out and return their SBA applications even if they think they can't get a loan, he said, because people who don't fill out an SBA application aren't eligible for other needs assistance from FEMA. FEMA's maximum grant for housing and other needs assistance is $25,600, he said, which includes the initial $5,100 home repair grant.

In Orange County, Fla. - where nearly 94,000 people have registered for FEMA assistance - there have been only 13 maximum FEMA grants, he said. "This sounds strange. There's got to be more people than 13. We've got to find them."

Thousands of hurricane survivors in Florida are simply ignoring their SBA applications - and that's not wise, he said. "Almost 616,000 SBA applications have been sent out. We've only received 165,000 back. Most people haven't sent them back in."

If getting the general population to fill out FEMA and SBA applications is a challenge, reaching out to people with special needs is even tougher, he admitted.

"One of the many reasons we weren't getting registrations from many Hispanic folks or undocumented people is because they were afraid of our government uniforms," he said. "FEMA is now a part of (the Department of) Homeland Security."

When FEMA teams decided to go out into the field without uniforms, and handed out food and water, they were able to talk about FEMA registration with at least some Hispanic communities, and others who were staying away from government aid.

"We talked to 50,000 people who were in that position," he said. "And we registered 6,000 families who would never have registered otherwise."

FEMA's "special needs teams" have been so successful in Florida that other states are looking to model that structure.

In a public statement, FEMA Director Michael Brown urged hurricane survivors to apply for aid. "FEMA wants to make certain all Floridians who are qualified for assistance in recovering from the effects of any of these four hurricanes are able to register for all help available to them," he said.

Another new foray within FEMA response has been emergency group shelters (EGS), or clusters of travel trailers. "As far as I know, it's the first time FEMA has done this," he said.

After Hurricane Andres, FEMA set up "tent cities" as temporary housing. Like the tent cities, EGS are a "band-aid" and not a permanent solution, he said, and FEMA plans to house survivors at EGS sites for no more than 18 months. "Anybody who's in a temporary housing situation needs to be worked with," he urged faith-based and voluntary groups.

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