In the turmoil that accompanies the shock and loss of a disaster, misleading rumors, half-truths and misunderstandings about available assistance may cause some hurricane-struck residents and displaced evacuees to disqualify themselves from much-needed help.
Recovery officials voiced concern that unreliable word-of-mouth in distressed neighborhoods and communities may deprive eligible individuals and households of vital aid from the state of Alabama and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“The last thing you need in a disaster is misinformation,” said Michael Bolch, overseeing federal recovery efforts in the state,”And the best way to avoid that problem is to call and ask what kind of assistance is available to you.”
Residents who suffered damages and losses as a result of Hurricane Katrina can apply for assistance immediately by calling 800-621-3362 (FEMA). Individuals with speech or hearing impairments who use special keyboard equipment (TTY) should call 800-462-7585. Both telephone lines are open 24-hours per day seven days a week until further notice. On-line registration is also available via the FEMA website at http://www.fema.gov which also serves as a valuable information resource for disaster victims.
State Coordinating Officer Bruce Baughman said that after registration, disaster survivors have the option to visit any of the nine Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) open in Alabama for follow-up information about various forms of aid. “These centers are coming to communities and neighborhoods to provide a human touch to the recovery process. You are not alone and we’ll take the time to sit down and talk with you about your recovery situation,” Baughman said.
The officials clarified some of the most common misconceptions that he has heard in past disasters:
* I have insurance, so there is no other help available. Not True: FEMA will not duplicate insurance benefits, but you may be eligible for help with losses not covered or damage in excess of your coverage (“under-insured”). That’s why it is important to register for assistance even while you are working with your insurance company to assess your insurance coverage.
* I have to wait for my insurance adjuster before I apply for disaster assistance. Not True: Don’t wait for an adjuster before applying for aid or making repairs needed to make your house livable. However, you should find out what your policy covers, and be sure to keep papers and receipts for any work.
* I already repaired my home. I don’t need to apply. Not True: You might qualify for reimbursement of expenses not covered by insurance.
* I have to pay taxes on any FEMA assistance I receive. Not True: The IRS has determined that FEMA disaster grants are tax-free so that the full amount can be used as intended for disaster recovery purposes. The IRS also allows taxpayers to file amended returns from the previous year in order to take a damage deduction for 2004 and use the projected refund for necessary needs.
* I got help from the Red Cross, so now I can’t get help from FEMA or the state. Not True: FEMA and Alabama Emergency Management Agency coordinators oversee a number of programs to help disaster victims. These programs are different from the emergency food, clothing and shelter initially provided by the Red Cross and other voluntary agencies.
* I got help from the Red Cross, so I’m already registered with FEMA. Not True: Registration with the Red Cross is not the same as registration with FEMA. For federal and state disaster assistance, you must first apply by calling 800-621-FEMA (3362), (TTY) 800-462-7585 or online at www.fema.gov.
* I have to be poor to qualify for disaster aid. Not True: The kinds of help provided depend on each applicant’s circumstances. Federal and state disaster assistance programs may be available to those who suffered damage, regardless of income. The programs are not “welfare.” I have to be turned down by my bank before I can apply for a disaster loan. Not True: If you lived in a declared county you are eligible to apply for a low-interest disaster loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). If SBA cannot approve your loan application you may be referred to other agencies for additional assistance, but that can’t happen if you don’t return your application.
* I must own a business to apply for a loan from the SBA. Not True: The SBA low-interest loan is the primary source of federal assistance for long-term recovery for homeowners, renters and business owners. SBA covers uninsured or underinsured losses for real estate damages as well as personal property damages.
* I rent an apartment. I can’t get help. Not True: There are several types of assistance available to renters. One type of grant may help renters with temporary housing needs if they have to move because of disaster damage or loss. Another type of grant may be available to an eligible individual or family with serious, disaster-related needs and necessary expenses that are not covered by insurance or other disaster assistance programs. Also a renter may qualify for an SBA low-interest disaster loan for personal property damages.
* I’m self-employed and out of work; I can’t qualify for disaster unemployment benefits. Not True: Disaster Unemployment Assistance, funded by FEMA and administered by the Alabama Workforce Development office, provides benefits for workers who would not normally qualify for unemployment compensation, including farmers, farm workers and those who are self-employed.
Anyone interested in filing for disaster unemployment assistance should visit the nearest state unemployment office or call (866) 234-5382 for more information.
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