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How to file for post-hurricane financial aid

When you are a victim of a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, your recovery takes the form of a four-phase project:

  • Register as a person affected by the disaster;
  • Schedule inspections of your home and car;
  • Apply for help from the Small Business Administration;
  • Apply some more -- for grants, tax help and other assistance.
  • Sometimes these phases overlap.

    Register as a person affected by the disaster
    When a federal disaster is declared in your area, a member of your household will be directed to call a toll-free number -- (800) 621-3362 -- to register your family with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. Just one member of a household should call -- preferably, a person who signed the deed or lease. If you are separated from the rest of your family, go ahead and call. Let FEMA sort it out if multiple people in the family have registered.

    People who are hearing-impaired may call (800) 462-7585.

    The number connects you to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's national phone center. Among the questions you will be asked:

    • What's your name, the address of your damaged dwelling and a phone number where you can be reached? If you don't have a phone -- say, your house was destroyed and you're staying at a shelter -- you'll be asked to provide the phone number of a friend or relative who can reach you. If you can't provide a phone number right away, you can always call later to give your contact number.
    • What's your mailing address? You'll be asked for directions for inspectors to reach the home. If your home was destroyed and mail can't be delivered there, you'll be asked to provide an address where you can get your mail. Otherwise, you'll be told to pick up your mail at a post office.
    • Are you a homeowner or renter?
    • How many people live in your household?
    • What's the household income?
    • Generally, how much damage did your home and your personal property sustain?
    • Was the home insured? Were the contents insured?

    You'll be given a disaster identification number. You'll use it in your dealings with various government agencies. Don't lose the number.

    Seriously. Don't lose the disaster identification number.

    In most disasters, you should receive a packet from FEMA in a week or so. With Hurricane Katrina, it might take longer. The packet from FEMA will contain:

    • A printout summarizing the information you supplied;
    • Information about help you might qualify for, such as low-interest loans, grants and emergency housing;
    • Contact information for various agencies;
    • A letter specifying which programs you have been referred to.

    Besides registering with FEMA, make your situation known to insurance companies, lenders and unemployment offices. Contact the insurance companies that insure your home (whether it's a homeowner's or renter's policy) and your car. If a loved one has died, contact the life insurance company.

    Call your lenders -- for mortgage, auto, student loans, credit cards and other debts -- to let them know what's going on. If the disaster puts you out of work, your creditors need to know. Federal regulators have urged lenders to give borrowers a break. But you have to contact your lenders. If you don't, they'll assume that you are able to pay. You might wonder why they don't just forgive late payments from certain ZIP codes. Keep wondering.

    Next: The next step is to undergo inspections.
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