Hurricane Assistance Tips

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the GulfCoast, few foresaw that the two hurricanes would leave a wake of unprecedented devastation in their wake. Most people were prepared for some wind or water damage, but few thought they might lose everything. If you've been affected by the recent hurricanes, or know someone who has been, one of these tips may help.

Contact FEMA -The Federal Emergency Management Agency was set up to provide information and resources to help you recover and rebuild. In fact, FEMA should probably be the first call you make. Through FEMA, you may be able to receive money for a hotel or motel, assistance with health care, short and long term housing and even transportation reimbursements. FEMA can be contacted at 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) or www.fema.gov. To apply for aid online, go to http://www.fema.gov/register.shtm .

Contact the Red Cross - The Red Cross can help with financial assistance. The amount you receive depends on the size of your family. You'll need to present some sort of identification that proves you lived in one of the ravaged areas. To apply for aid, call a Red Cross call center. Make sure you have a pen and a paper handy because you'll need to write down a client information number. To find the call center pertaining to your area, call 1-800-975-7585 or visit http://www.redcross.org/

Apply for Unemployment - You may not be aware of this, but if you lost your job due to the hurricanes, you're eligible for unemployment. Even if you worked at your job for less than three months, you can still receive Disaster Unemployment Assistance. For more information contact the Department of Labor at 1-866-4-USA-DOL or www.dol.gov.

Don't walk away from mortgage obligations

If your home was damaged or destroyed, the worst thing you can do is ignore your mortgage. Non payments will still show up on your credit history. Instead, contact your lender to discuss the situation. In most cases there's a 90-day grace period.

Call your bank

Your financial institution can work with you. Many banks are waiving ATM fees and increasing cash machine withdrawal limits. They may also be willing to defer payments, forgive certain debts and adjust credit card limits.

Contact your credit card company

They will try to work with you regarding credit limits and payment plans. Again, do not ignore your obligations, especially if you hope to apply for credit or a mortgage in the future. Even if you can't afford payments at the moment, it will pay off in the long run to have a dialog with your credit card company.

Contact anyone you owe

Hopefully, they will understand if you're not in a position to pay your bills right now. Some debts may be forgiven and some may be given a grace period.

Rebuild

FEMA will reimburse for the cost of debris removal and many of your rebuilding expenses. Make sure you keep all receipts and document everything. For more information, contact FEMA.

Tap into your retirement benefits

The IRS is allowing penalty-free hardship withdrawals from 401K and other retirement accounts. To qualify, make a withdrawal before March 31, 2006. Contact your place of employment or the company handling your retirement account for more details.

Deferred Deadlines

The IRS has also deferred income tax deadlines for those who live in areas affected by the hurricanes. If your home is located in one of FEMA's "individual assistance areas," you already qualify and the extension is automatic. For more information, visit www.irs.gov

Salvation Army

Even though their support is more through providing meals and supplies, the Salvation Army deserves honorable mention. To learn more about the services the Salvation Army is offering in your area, contact them at 1-888-363-2769 or visit www.salvationarmyusa.org .

Perhaps some of the above tips can be a source of comfort and assistance for those in need. If you need assistance, don't be afraid to ask. Help is only a phone call or mouse click away.