Many Americans turn to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help in the long road to recovery after a disaster. The agency is tasked with providing individuals with financial assistance for a variety of situations, from home repairs to medical expenses.
You can only apply for aid if the natural disaster you were impacted by receives a presidential disaster– and after that, it may take more than a year before Congress approves funding to help survivors.
How does a disaster get declared? Read here.
Typically, you might apply for FEMA aid if you do not have insurance to cover losses, or if you’re a renter or homeowner and your insurance policy doesn’t cover specific damages and repairs. Applying for aid can be a confusing process, particularly if you’ve been displaced or your home has been damaged. You will need documents to verify everything from your identity to proof of residency and living expenses.
“Make copies of everything,” advises Chrishelle Palay, the executive director of the HOME Coalition in Houston, which advocates for disaster recovery and equity. Whether that’s property records, leases, or insurance policies, she recommends keeping copies both digitally and physically.
You can keep copies of your most important documents in a water-proof document folder, and you can also back up copies to a free online cloud server like Google Drive, so you can access them anywhere, even if your computer is damaged.
Gathering your financial and personal documents can be almost as important as having a stocked hurricane kit well before June 1.
“[Preparing] in an event is not going to lead to an efficient response or recovery,” said Stephanie Duke, a lawyer with Disability Rights Texas who works on disaster recovery issues. Putting your important documents in a disaster kit well before hurricane season can save you time and worry.
You’ll need documents such as IDs, insurance papers, leases, and deeds in order to access aid from FEMA– whether that’s rent reimbursement, grants to repair a roof or damaged walls, or personal property losses.
Proof of identity and residency
According to FEMA, if the agency can’t verify your identity or proof of residency in an apartment or home, it may deny long-term aid applications that are meant to help rebuild or recover damaged property after a storm. Their stated goal of verifying residency is to avoid fraud– in some rare cases, people may attempt to apply for aid despite living outside of the disaster declaration area, or under other false pretenses.
Taking some of your most important documents and IDs with you can also help avoid identity fraud, Duke said. If you evacuate, having the documents with you ensures that they can’t be stolen from your house in your absence.
For decades, disaster survivors who were living in a house they inherited were denied aid because the property wasn’t deeded to them and recorded in a legal transaction. This effectively left out thousands of disaster survivors—particularly Black families in the rural Deep South, where houses were passed down through generations without wills or other legal documents. More than a third of Black-owned land in the South is passed through informal means, called “heirs property,” according to a 2021 investigation by the Washington Post.
However, in 2021, FEMA officially changed its requirements for having a deed to prove home ownership and occupancy. While you no longer have to provide a deed, FEMA still requires another way to verify your residency.
The agency has expanded its list of documents: you can now submit a motor vehicle registration form, court documents, letters from social service agencies, schools, or bills for repairs on the property. These documents need to be dated within a year. (For example, if you are applying for aid in 2022, your documents should be dated or issued sometime in 2021.)
“Reports that we saw after Hurricane Ida [show] there was a huge increase in people getting rewards instead of denials for heirs property,” Duke said.
Additionally, when you verify your address with FEMA now, that verification will be valid for two years if you do not move; if you experience another disaster within that time frame, you won’t have to go through the verification process again.
Other documents you may be required to submit include mortgage statements, property tax bills, and utility bills to prove your total pre-disaster housing cost if you need FEMA to cover rental assistance while you are unable to live in your home due to damages. People who experienced homelessness before the storm can now also use city shelters to prove residency, Duke said, enabling them to get some aid as well.
“It used to be that you couldn’t get any aid—you might not be allowed into emergency shelters,” she added. “FEMA has updated to allow an option if you are [homeless].”
Tenants who may need aid for alternative housing or personal property loss must also provide proof of their address. You can provide a copy of your lease with your name on it, or utility bills such as gas, electric or water bills. FEMA might also require proof of income with a pay stub or tax form. If you will submit a driver’s license or other state-issued ID, make sure that it’s already been updated to match your current address—the ID card must be current at the time of the disaster, according to FEMA.
“You’ve always got to understand your lease,” Duke said. You may be obligated to paying rent even if you are displaced, or you may be eligible for relocation benefits particularly in public housing.
A pre-existing housing crisis in Lake Charles, along with slow federal aid, have left some renters unhoused for nearly six months.
Photos to prove personal property losses
If you lose your personal belongings and property due to a disaster, you may apply for aid from your private insurance company or FEMA to replace or repair certain essential items that you owned: standard household appliances, furnishing, and accessible items.
Receipts and appraisals for valuable items may help you with both insurance claims and FEMA aid. FEMA also recommends taking photos or videos of your home in its pre-disaster state so that you can more easily prove your lost property value.
Renters can’t claim personal losses for any appliances, furnishings or other items provided by a landlord; however, other items that they owned may qualify. For both homeowners and renters, FEMA may also ask you to provide proof that your insurance did not cover or pay for these losses.
“When renters get awards from FEMA, it’s usually for personal property,” Duke said, as opposed to damages to the housing unit itself. “Pictures, documents—anything and everything,” will help you apply for those benefits.
Having photos can also help in cases of fraud. Oftentimes, knowing that people are desperate to make repairs, people may begin offering to rebuild or repair homes without the proper licenses.
In one case, Palay said, a client fell for a scam, using FEMA funds to pay the contractor who did a shoddy job. When she attempted to get aid through a city program to finish the repair job, the city denied her claim. With photos of the house pre and post disaster, as well as the shoddy repairs, the client would have been able to overturn the denial.
If your home is damaged after a disaster and you can’t stay there, you can receive reimbursements for some of those expenses from FEMA, provided that your home or renter’s insurance policy doesn’t cover those expenses. Eligible expenses include up to seven days of lodging.
To receive reimbursements, you must have receipts showing the dates you stayed and the amount you spent on the stay. You must also provide the address, name and phone number of the place that you stayed. When possible, save an itemized receipt as other charges like pet fees, movies, laundry, etc. will not be covered by FEMA.
If you are on a visa, greencard, or other form of legal residency, make sure to have copies of all your immigraiton paperwork saved as well. Make sure to write down important dates for interviews or court appearances, Duke says, as well as a list of contacts like your lawyer and the court’s phone number, too. Oftentimes, the court proceedings may continue without you if you can’t notify the court of your inability to attend. “Knowing exactly who to call, and when to call, to reset and continue– save it digitally, and have a hard copy, too.”
Medical needs and accommodations
Keep a record of any prescriptions you may need to refill while displaced, Duke advises. Pharmacies are allowed to refill time-limited essential prescriptions during declared disasters. Additionally, invoices or receipts for equipment that you rely on– functional living assistance or communication devices, for example. Make sure you have phone numbers or other contact information for your doctors and specialists.
If you have a service animal, you will be allowed to bring it to an emergency shelter, as this is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Legally, you should not be asked to provide documentation of your disability or medical need for a service animal.
How to appeal FEMA’s decision—and get help
FEMA doesn’t always approve requests for help. In fact, the agency has a track record for denying aid or providing less than necessary to people who face the most systemic barriers to recovery– such as access to personal savings, loans or insurance payments.
If FEMA denies your application, and you still need assistance, you have the right to appeal the decision. Read your decision letter carefully, as it may indicate why the agency denied your application, and what you can resubmit in an appeal.
In some cases, you may need to submit further proof and documentation that you do not have the funds to repair or rebuild. For example, you can resubmit paperwork from your insurance company proving that you did not receive benefits from them for repairs; you may need to resubmit proof of damage at your property.
Your appeal must be sent within 60 days of the original decision. Your appeal letter needs to include:
- Your full name, current address and phone number
- Your pre-disaster, primary residence address
- Your registration number on every page of the letter.
- The disaster declaration number pertaining to your application
The letter must be signed by the application and include all the documentation you’d like to resubmit.