Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘Life-threatening situation’: FEMA says power outages—not just storm damage—may qualify Louisiana residents for evacuation aid

New Orleans residents line up for a bus in front of the city’s Convention Center as part of a city-assisted post-storm evacuation program. (Nicholas Chrastil/The Lens)

Earlier this week, the agency said that only people with damaged homes from Hurricane Ida would qualify.

This story was co-published with The Lens. 

Louisiana residents who evacuated ahead of Hurricane Ida — or those who need a place to stay now amid a prolonged power outage and heat advisory — could be eligible for hotel room assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) even if their homes were not damaged by the storm. This is a different stance from earlier messaging this week by FEMA and the state.   

John Mills, a FEMA spokesperson currently based in New Orleans, told Southerly and the Lens via phone that there are several different avenues for assistance that can cover hotel costs. 

One is expedited rental assistance, which provides funds for one month to applicants who report that their essential utilities — like electricity — are temporarily unavailable or if their homes were damaged or destroyed by the hurricane. The money is disbursed directly to the applicant, and can be put toward evacuation-related hotel costs. The program is not restricted to renters; it also includes homeowners.

The other is the Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program, which directly pays hotels rather than applicants who require shelter. Numerous hotels are eligible in Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas (find a complete list here).

“If someone is in an uninhabitable condition, they may be eligible for Transitional Sheltering Assistance,” Mills said. “If they had to evacuate to a hotel, they might be eligible. If they’re in a shelter, or some other uncomfortable living situation.” 

A home that was not damaged by Ida but has been without power for days with no clear sense of when power will be restored could also be eligible. 

“We want to hear from everybody like that,” Mills said.

Mills did not say what specific qualifications would make applicants eligible for expedited rental assistance or the transitional sheltering program, but encouraged people to apply and said applicants will be notified by FEMA about which types of assistance they are eligible for. He said home inspections will not need to be done to qualify people for assistance. FEMA began notifying people they are eligible for Transitional Sheltering Assistance on Friday via automated phone calls, texts, and emails, according to Mills.

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 on Sunday. 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.

You can apply for FEMA aid at DisasterAssistance.gov, through the FEMA mobile app, or by phone at 1-800-621-3362. 

Earlier this week, FEMA released statements noting only residents with home damage are eligible for assistance. Mills insisted this is not the case, and residents with power outages are eligible as well.

FEMA requires applicants with renter’s or homeowner’s insurance to file a claim with their insurance company before turning to the agency because it legally cannot duplicate payments. But many insurance companies only provide “additional living expenses”—like paying for a hotel room — if a home is badly damaged or if there was a mandatory evacuation, according to Loretta Worters, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, which provides data-driven insurance insights to consumers.

New Orleans officials did not issue a mandatory evacuation ahead of Hurricane Ida, saying there was too little time to implement one as the rapidly-intensifying storm approached the coast. In the days after, officials urged residents who left to stay away because of the widespread power outage and summer heat. As of Saturday, about 150,000 households and businesses in New Orleans still lack power. City officials estimate that about 200,000 people evacuated before Ida made landfall.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

A mandatory evacuation order is one of the main triggers for insurance companies to cover hotel expenses while an evacuee is away. But post-storm power outages during a heat wave likely won’t qualify policyholders for that benefit, Worters said.

“If a consumer chooses to go to a hotel because their power is out, they’re not going to be eligible for [additional living expense] reimbursement,” Worters said.

Several major insurance companies, including Allstate and USAA, have said they will cover additional living expenses for policyholders in Louisiana who evacuated for Ida, according to reporting from CNBC. They made the announcement as the White House pressured companies to alter their policies, accounting for the lack of mandatory evacuation orders in populous areas.

“We’re being told by survivors who had insurance they thought would cover them for an evacuation, then received a denial from their insurance provider because the evacuation was not technically mandatory,” Mills said. 

He urged people to get the denial in writing and provide it to FEMA when applying for assistance.

“Based on what we’re seeing in Louisiana, FEMA thinks it is a life-threatening situation that the power is out right now, and so does the state,” Mills said. “That’s why FEMA is providing assistance.”

If your experience applying for FEMA assistance after Hurricane Ida differs from what FEMA described in this article, we want to know. Email berlincarly@gmail.com

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.