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FEMA deadline awareness urged

News of federal disaster aid deadlines is not reaching some hurricane survivors - and is confusing to others, said concerned faith-based responders this week.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | January 26, 2006

"My experience isn't so much that people don't hear things but they hear so many deadlines they don't know what the truth is anymore."

—Amy Elder

News of federal disaster aid deadlines is not reaching some hurricane survivors - and is confusing to others, said concerned faith-based responders this week.

Two major federal aid deadlines have been set for survivors of Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita.

First, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reminding Katrina and Rita evacuees still living in hotel rooms nationwide that they must request an authorization code by Jan. 30, 2006 in order to have their hotel stay paid for beyond Feb. 7.

Second, FEMA has set a federal disaster aid deadline about six weeks after the hotel authorization code deadline. For people living in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or Texas affected by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita, the deadline to apply for federal disaster recovery assistance is March 11. A FEMA spokesperson confirmed this deadline on Wednesday, and affirmed the date holds no matter where the hurricane survivor now resides.

FEMA has received more than 2 million applications for federal aid from people affected by Katrina or Rita.

"We believe the vast majority of individuals have registered," said David Passey, a FEMA public information officer who covers Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico.

The hotel dwellers - already dealing with the rapidly approaching authorization code deadline - at this point may be more likely to register with FEMA than other hurricane survivors, he added. "In order to get an authorization code for a hotel, they have to register," said Passey. "Some of this population that could be eligible will benefit from the push on the hotel deadline."

After the hotel deadline passes, he added, FEMA will continue to emphasize the March 11 deadline to apply for federal disaster aid. The March 11 deadline holds for Small Business Administration (SBA) loans as well as state disaster programs, Passey pointed out. The SBA can loan money to homeowners, renters and business owners. Homeowners may borrow up to $200,000 for disaster related home repairs. Homeowners and renters may borrow up to $40,000 to replace disaster-damaged personal property, including vehicles.

In states far afield from where the hurricanes made landfall, faith-based and voluntary organizations are trying hard to clearly publicize deadlines for all types of aid.

But responders are worried about people who won't get the message, said Jim Puza, an Arizona Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster leader who also represents The Salvation Army. "Who is least likely to hear? It's the person who moved in with a relative. They've had no needs up until now. They're still a little bit in shock. They haven't done anything. Those are the people we want to reach."

People who were airlifted to Arizona are now people who tend to be well-connected with voluntary agencies, added Puza. "Every agency has driven them into the system. But for people who went off on their own with a relative - those are the people that you have to get registered."

Arizona has more than 2,000 people living in the state who were displaced by Katrina or Rita, said Judy Kioski, spokesperson for the Arizona Division of Emergency Management. She commended faith-based and voluntary groups in her state for their work in meeting the needs of survivors.

"But we worry about the people that have not reached out to voluntary agencies. It could be families that opened up their homes and hearts - and really aren't plugged into the volunteer agency system."

In Texas - where more than a half million Katrina/Rita FEMA registrants are living - responders are concerned that multiple and changing FEMA deadlines have caused confusion.

"My experience isn't so much that people don't hear things but they hear so many deadlines they don't know what the truth is anymore," said Amy Elder, executive director of Texas Interfaith Disaster Response. "It's very confusing. My take is that most people are getting the information - but it's just not meaningful anymore."

The most often-changed FEMA deadline has been past deadlines set for people to exit FEMA-funded hotel rooms. Often faith-based groups and social service providers advocated for extending these deadlines because they were concerned about the lack of housing and services for hurricane survivors leaving hotels.

The changes - however well-intentioned - have been hard on people, said Elder. "For the people in recovery, it's absolutely mind-boggling. It's stress-building and it's terrible."

What's the solution? Direct person-to-person communication can help hurricane survivors understand the deadlines, suggested Elder. "We're emphasizing the Adopt-a-Family program. It's the personal contact that will be the most significant part of taking people toward self-sufficiency."

Ironically, as hotel and aid deadlines are publicized more and more, the hurricane survivors themselves seem to sink into invisibility, said Elder. "When you walk down the street, evacuees are invisible," she said, "so people don't think we have a problem."

Beyond what can often seem like a bureaucratic jungle, she urged a focus that's back on people: "The ultimate solution for recovery is having people meeting people," she said.

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