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The four steps of recovery from a natural disaster

When you are a victim of a natural disaster, such as the devastating fires in Southern California, there are four things to do in order to receive aid: complete the application, have your property inspected, fill out the form for a Small Business Administration loan and search for other assistance, including grants. Sometimes these steps overlap.

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Applications and forms
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. Just one member of a household should call -- preferably, a person who signed the deed or lease.

The number connects you to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's national phone center in Denton, Texas. 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 set up in a high-school gym -- 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? 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?
  • Were you insured?
  • You'll be given a disaster identification number. You'll use it in your dealings with various government agencies. DO NOT lose the number. Have it tattooed backward on your forehead so you can read it in the mirror (just kidding, but it is that important).

In a week or so, you will receive a packet from FEMA containing:

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

While you're waiting for the FEMA letter, file insurance claims and contact lenders -- for your mortgage, car, student loans and even your credit cards -- to let them know what's going on. If the disaster put you out of work, your creditors need to know.

Sometimes lenders will suspend payments until you get back on your feet. This is the case with federally guaranteed student loans, and your mortgage lender should help you out, because the last thing the lender wants to do is foreclose on a disaster-damaged house.

Inspecting the property
The next step is to undergo inspections -- in some cases, lots of them.

You'll probably deal with insurance adjusters for your home and car. If your home was damaged by flood or earthquake, and you had coverage for that calamity, you might deal with a separate insurance adjuster focusing on that.

After you register with FEMA, you'll get a call from an inspector to set up an appointment. The inspector is required to try at least three times to contact you, preferably on different days and at different times of the day. You or a representative (such as an attorney or spouse) must be present when the inspector looks over your property.

 
 
Next: FEMA will give property owners up to $15,000 for emergency repairs.
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