Now that President Obama has put his John Hancock on Vermont's official disaster declaration, the folks who set up shop this week at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Joint Field Office in Burlington — as well as those who never left town from our last flood disaster in May — have an urgent message to get out to all Vermont storm victims: GET YOURSELVES IN THE SYSTEM!
Apparently, some people who've suffered flood damage, either this week or last May, mistakenly assume that just because they called 2-1-1, spoke to someone at the American Red Cross or visited the Salvation Army that they're now registered in the FEMA system and are immediately eligible for federal disaster assistance. Not so, warns William Rukeyser, a public information officer at FEMA's joint field office in Burlington.
With a multi-state disaster such as Irene, FEMA is urging storm victims to take a couple of CYA ("cover your ass") steps. Step one: Contact FEMA directly, either by filling out an application online at DisasterAssistance.gov, or by calling 1-800-621-3362 (1-800-462-7585 for hearing and speech impaired.) Those calls are routed to a variety of call centers around the country, so don't be alarmed if an operator asks you, in a Texas drawl, how to spell "Chittenden."
Step Two: Apply for a Small Business Administration loan, even if you're neither small nor in business. As Rukeyser explains, the SBA loan application is essentially the "second gate" through which all storm victims walk. In effect, it triggers a variety of other types of eligibilities for federal disaster aid, but completing the loan app doesn’t commit you to anything.
What's the maximum amount of federal assistance individuals or families will be eligible for? Unfortunately, there's no simple way to answer that question, Rukeyser says. Basically, the feds consider a number of different factors, including the damage residents suffered, what resources they have and what insurance coverage is already in place. As he admits, "It gets really complicated really fast. There’s not a single number."
So, now that Vermont's congressional delegation and Obama have done their part at prying open the federal coffers, how much total cash will Vermont be eligible for? Again, that's unknown. Disaster funding is unlike most other government funding in that it responds to the documented need, not a set budget.
OK. Then how quickly will FEMA checks be cut? Short answer: "Soon." According to Rukeyser, it's more likely to be days rather than weeks, especially for those who've suffered catastrophic losses. Another reason to contact FEMA pronto. First in, first out.
BTW, the last deadline for applying for federal assistance due to the May floods is the end of business hours on Tuesday, September 6. So, if your life has been made miserable not once but twice this year, do NOT assume you can roll it all in together into one fat wad of federal cash. FEMA don't roll that way.
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