FEMA: Is it your answer in a disaster?

Every hurricane season, people who live along the east coast, and even those who don't, anxiously watch the news and the circling of inbound tropical storms. When hurricanes hit, reporters stand in yellow slickers, giving the news in 100 mile per hour winds. Windows are nailed over with plywood, and school cafeterias are transformed into temporary shelters. Those who do lose homes are thankful to have escaped with their lives. But, that doesn't mean the rebuilding process isn't still a daunting task. Thankfully, relief agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) exist for such trying times.

Created in 1979, FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security. The agency helps victims of disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. FEMA also conducts emergency and rescue training.

FEMA helps most disaster victims through the Individuals and Households Program (IHP). The IHP can provide temporary shelter in government housing or the money to rent an apartment or house. While you're residing elsewhere, they offer the financial resources to repair or rebuild your home. Funds for medical attention, funeral expenses, transportation needs (including a replacement vehicle), and moving costs are also available. In addition, IHP assistance is there for work or school related essentials like clothing, computers and books.

So, how can you take advantage of IHP funds to get back on your feet again?

Thankfully, the procedure for filing an IHP application is fairly simple. First, make sure you've already filed a claim with your insurance company. Then, call the FEMA Helpline at 1-800-621-FEMA. A FEMA representative will gather some basic information from you. Be prepared to provide your social security number and answer questions about insurance and the location of your property. You'll want to describe the damage to your home in as much detail as possible. After your interview, you'll receive an application number.

Be prepared that this initial phone call may prompt a visit from an inspector to review your home's damages. Make sure you have proof (i.e., a deed or homeowners' insurance policy) that the property belongs to you. After the inspection, you'll be required to sign a verification form, and FEMA will notify you of its decision within 10 days.

If you qualify for IHP money, start watching for the check. If not, you'll get an explanation from FEMA about why your application was rejected. There's still hope for the rejected though since you can file an appeal for a paperwork review. An appeal is also an option if you feel the amount of your check is inadequate to cover your disaster-related expenses.

You can also think of FEMA as a sort of advance check cashing service. If you're stuck endlessly waiting for an insurance company settlement, you may be eligible for an advance from FEMA. It goes without saying that this money must be repaid once you receive the settlement.

While there are no guarantees for FEMA assistance, you'll probably have little trouble receiving IHP funding if the following applies:

  • You're unable to live in your house because of disaster-related damage.
  • The location of your home is declared a disaster area.
  • Your insurance company refuses to cover your disaster-related expenses.
  • You're in severe financial need because of the disaster.
  • You're a U.S. citizen.

Tax-free money received from IHP is not part of your personal income. Better yet, it's not a loan. You won't have to worry about paying off a troublesome loan as you're rebuilding your life. But IHP money can only be used for disaster-related purposes, so you can't just apply in the hopes of redecorating your house. Just to keep tabs on this provision, FEMA requires that you retain your receipts and bills for three years.

Losing your home in a disaster is nothing short of overwhelming. No one can take away the initial fear, grief, and stress associated with such an event. But FEMA can certainly ease those emotions by helping you rebuild your house--and your life.