FEMA says ‘relax’

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 26, 2008


Editor and Publisher

LAPLACE – For the many people who are panicking because they can’t get registered with FEMA to get coverage for damages from the past two hurricanes, you can relax.

Art Alejandre, local Public Information Officer for FEMA, made it clear this week that residents in this area who were affected by Hurricane Gustav or Ike have plenty of time to still get registered for a claim.

Alejandre told L’Observateur that there is a 60-day sign up period following a hurricane for residents to register with FEMA for assistance.

However Alejandre also made a lot of other things clear in terms of just what kind of help FEMA provides.

Having been a public information officer (PIO) for many years with FEMA, Alejandre is well used to the criticism his agency has gotten from people who didn’t think they received what was appropriate from the federal government program.

“Too many people think that FEMA is here to restore you right back to where you were before the storm,” he explained. “That’s just not true. FEMA is here to get you back on the road to recovery, that’s all. From there, the Small Business Association (SBA) can help you get completely restored.”

Alejandre said that FEMA can offer only minimal coverage for those who spent money evacuating, since they are not authorized to pay for hotels, gas or food if you left. The only hotel coverage would come if your home is damaged to the point that you can’t live in it.

Beyond the initial response to the storms, FEMA has coverage “mainly for the underinsured, or those without insurance,” he said, noting that people should register if they are not sure if their insurance will cover damages to their homes or vehicles, or if they know they do not have insurance coverage.

“But we still encourage people to get registered, which will start the process of getting FEMA to send someone out to your house to see whether you have coverage or not. I hate to see people not register because they aren’t sure if they need the help, then down the road they realize they should have registered, but now it is too late,” he added.

So far in St. John Parish, 8,704 people have signed up for FEMA assistance, while 3,226 in St. James Parish have registered.

Those interested in signing up have until November 1 on the Gustav storm, and until November 11 on the Ike storm.

To get signed up, you can call 1-800-621-3362, or go online at fema.gov to register. Alejandre said that he was aware of some problems getting through on the phone line and advised trying in the early morning hours, or late at night when the call volume is not as high.

He added that if individuals think they had damage from the two different storms, then they must sign up twice for each different event.

FEMA has a maximum payout of $28,800 for any individual claim, and those who have uninsured claims bigger than that will probably have to get assistance in the form of a low-interest loan from the SBA. Local PIO Bill Koontz said that they offer loans of up to $40,000 for contents, and $200,000 for homes—all assuming an individual can afford the new note. Loans are being offered with a low rate of only 2 7/8 percent interest, and can be for as long as 30-years.

“There is a lot of help through the SBA that many people are unaware of,” Koontz said. “We can also refinance an existing loan. Even if you are insured, you would be smart to sign up with SBA since you may find down the road that you didn’t get enough from your insurance to cover your repairs, and now you could really use one of our low-interest loans to make up the difference.”

Business loans are also available for those with damages, covering a number of different areas that could also include loss of income. Those loans can be as high as $2 million each, again, assuming you qualify.

To get signed up, you use the same FEMA number and call 1-800-621-3362, or go online at fema.gov to register

Many people have raised the question of whether FEMA will cover deductibles for people who have insurance. But even as many individuals have reported they filed with FEMA for just that, but were denied coverage, Alejandre still suggested signing up anyway since every claim is different.

Alejandre was making the rounds to area media to get the message out about what FEMA could offer and what they could not. He said that they have gotten their share of complaints since they are not covering for hotels when people evacuated. But one reason, he noted, was because there were large shelters set up in Alexandria and Shreveport where people could have stayed.

“Most people end up going to family members or friends’ houses,” he said. “Our shelters had space for 5,000 people, and neither of them was full.”

There was even a shelter for pets set up in both those cities as well to offer a place for those who had to leave with their animals.

“FEMA always has a huge target on it,” Alejandre confirmed. “People get upset since they want more things covered than we give them. But there is just a lot of misconception about what we are really here for.”

There are also FEMA Centers set up around the state for people to register at, if they decide to do it that way. You can find those centers at fema.gov.