UPDATE: After this story was published, FEMA extended its deadline for critical needs assistance from Sept. 12 to Sept. 22. The extension does not apply to the Expedited Rental Assistance, according to media reports. Apply at https://www.disasterassistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-3362.
When Taylor Almeida evacuated from New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Ida, she immediately started racking up hefty hotel bills. She spent about $1,300 to stay in Montgomery with her 2-year-old son for five nights, and then relocated to Pensacola, closer to her son’s father, where she spent another $750 at an extended-stay hotel.
After the storm passed, a neighbor in the 7th ward let Almeida know that the house she rents saw no apparent damage. But the power was out, and would be for days. The heat index in New Orleans had been in the low 100s, gas was scarce and the sewage pumps in the city were operating on generators and in danger of overloading. City officials urged evacuees to stay away until things improved.
So Almeida, who works as a nurse, put in an application with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Sept. 3, hoping to get some of her evacuation expenses covered. She filled out the questionnaire at DisasterAssistance.gov, indicating that her home was not damaged, but had been without utilities for more than five days.
The next day, she received a discouraging letter from FEMA.
“At this time, based on the information you provided at the time of your application, you are not being referred to the Individuals and Households Program,” it read. “Your application indicated the disaster did not cause damage to your home and/or personal property.”
The letter also said that if she did report damage, she would be required to complete an application for a low-interest disaster loan with the Small Business Administration before being considered for FEMA assistance.
Almeida was frustrated. She had heard of other people in similar situations who had already received FEMA assistance. As The Lens and Southerly recently reported, FEMA representatives have told members of the public over the past week that the prolonged power outages in Louisiana may qualify residents for evacuation aid even if their homes were not damaged and they were not subject to a mandatory evacuation order, which New Orleans residents were not.
At a Monday press conference with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, FEMA Coordinating Officer Gerard Stolar emphasized the point.
“We’re also providing expedited rental assistance for people who had to evacuate to hotels or needed to relocate because of the life-threatening power outage that we’re still experiencing,” he said.
The deadline for that type of aid is fast approaching: Sept. 12, Stolar said.
That date has not been widely publicized on the agency’s website. It applies to assistance related to urgent needs as a result of the power outage. That includes rapid financial assistance for critical needs including food, water, fuel, transportation, and prescription drugs, as well as expedited rental assistance, which can be used for hotel-bill reimbursements.
While the FEMA deadline for urgent needs is fast approaching, the deadline for other types of FEMA aid — like grant money for home repair beyond what’s covered by insurance, replacing personal property and money for chainsaws and generators — is not until Oct. 28, Stolar said.
FEMA aid tied to Hurricane Ida is available to residents in the 25 parishes where residents qualify for individual assistance under a disaster declaration approved by the White House. Those are: Ascension, Assumption, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson, Lafourche, Livingston, Orleans, Plaquemines, Pointe Coupee, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. James, St. John the Baptist, St. Martin, St. Mary, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Terrebonne, Washington, West Baton Rouge, and West Feliciana.
But as the deadline approaches, some FEMA applicants have said the application process has been frustrating and at times inconsistent with official messaging about evacuation aid.
Anne Allen, another New Orleans resident, had heard FEMA officials like Stolar say that evacuees could be eligible for aid because of the prolonged power outages. She remained at her home through the storm, which sustained only minimal roof damage. But when temperatures began to climb during the power outage afterward, and she was out of her medications, she decided to evacuate with her three cats to a hotel in Houston.
Before she left, though, Allen heeded messages from officials to apply for FEMA aid early. On her application, she said that she had “unknown” damage to her home — some shingles had blown off, but she wasn’t sure of the extent of the damage beyond that yet.
Within a day, she received a letter nearly identical to the one Almeida got, saying that based on the information she provided, she was not being referred for FEMA assistance.
She began calling the FEMA helpline persistently, and estimated she spent 6 hours on hold over the course of 3 days.
Each time she got through to someone, the operator told her she couldn’t receive help unless she reported damage. When Allen, who owns her home, admitted that she’d lost a few shingles and was concerned about two edges of her roof, the operator was ecstatic, she said.
“He said, ‘I’m going to report that so we can move your case forward now,’” Allen said. She has since been assigned a FEMA inspector, she said.
Almeida and Allen have since been approved for some FEMA assistance. But the first communications each of them had with the agency were both disheartening and confusing, making it sound like they would not be up for any aid at all.
Patricia Stukes, who processed cases as a FEMA employee for over a decade, believes the wording in these initial letters can be detrimental to disaster survivors. Even if the agency simply needs more information about an individual’s situation before approving them for assistance, the way the letters are written can make it seem like it’s the end of the road, she said.
“It automatically puts people on the defensive,” Stukes said. “Those really cut and dry denial letters create animosity, create all kinds of disdain, create a sense of helplessness, and increase reactionary people.”
FEMA spokesperson John Mills did not respond to a question from The Lens concerning the wording of the letters both Almeida and Allen received, nor did he address a question about their experience being told they would need to report damage to get assistance, despite what he and other FEMA officials have told the public. .
“By law, FEMA is not allowed to duplicate insurance payments,” Mills wrote in an email. He said the agency “has provided $259 million in grants to survivors who have serious damage to their primary residence, an urgent need to relocate because of a life-threatening situation, and other serious disaster-related needs not covered by insurance.”
Additionally, he said “survivors may be referred to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for a disaster loan to help with insurance deductibles, personal property replacement, and other needs not related to home habitability or emergency relocation and sheltering.”
After she received her letter from FEMA, Almeida tried to get through to a representative on the phone, but an automated message said the lines were busy and directed her back to the application website. She uploaded her hotel receipts, hoping for help, and waited.
Then, on Wednesday, Sept. 8, she got word that her neighborhood had power restored, and she began getting ready to return home.
She got another letter from FEMA. “Assistance Approved,” it said.
This letter said she was now eligible for housing assistance because of the extended power outage. She was approved for $1,061 of rental assistance— the 2021 Fair Market Rent for a two bedroom in the New Orleans metro area— “because essential public utilities (such as gas, electric, or water) are unavailable due to the disaster.”
That money will only cover about half of what Almeida spent on hotels while she evacuated. But the letter provided instructions on how to submit more information to get additional financial assistance for hotel expenses, and for further rental assistance if utilities were out for longer.
Allen said that through all of her calls with FEMA, nobody told her to file an insurance claim first. She has been approved for FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, through which FEMA directly pays hotels to house evacuees when their homes are unlivable.
But Allen feels that program doesn’t suit her needs. She does not require shelter going forward, but does need the nearly $750 she spent on a hotel room to evacuate reimbursed.
While every FEMA employee she got on the phone seemed to really want to help her, she said, she’s frustrated by the disconnect between their understanding of the situation and what FEMA spokespeople are telling the public.
“People are making decisions about their livelihoods and their safety for themselves and their families,” Allen said. “Those words that you’re speaking, people are taking action on.”