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One week mark: Continuing to Support States' Tornado Recovery

A week ago, states and communities across the southern U.S. were affected by a series of deadly tornadoes. Tragically, many lost friends and loved ones, while even more lost their homes, possessions, and peace of mind. Our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to those affected the storms and tornadoes as we support our state and local counterparts in the ongoing response efforts. A lot has been said and done since the tornadoes struck, and we wanted to provide a quick recap of the ongoing federal support, while looking back at our blog posts from the week.

We will continue to update this blog on a daily basis, sharing our role in the recovery efforts, as well as what our partners are doing. And while the recovery will continue in the south, we are closely monitoring the threat of flooding in some of these impacted states and across much of the Central U.S. As always, we stand ready to assist our state counterparts in minimizing damage to life and property.

How To Avoid and Report Scam Artists After a Disaster

After disaster strikes, many businesses, voluntary, faith-based, and community-based organizations, government agencies and committed citizens come together to try and meet the needs of the affected individuals and communities.  Unfortunately, disasters often bring out criminals who prey on the needs of disaster survivors by offering fraudulent services.

If you suspect anyone – an inspector, disaster survivor, or someone posing as one of these – of fraudulent activities, call our toll-free Disaster Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721, or your local law enforcement officials.

To help you spot fraud, here is a list of consumer safety tips from federal and state agencies:

  • There is never a fee to apply for FEMA disaster assistance or to receive it. 
  • There is no fee for FEMA or U.S. Small Business Administration property damage inspections. 
  • The only ways to register for FEMA help are to call 800-621-3362 (TTY: 800-462-7585) or visit www.DisasterAssistance.gov. Or visit m.fema.gov from a smartphone or Web-enabled device.
  • Government workers will never ask for a fee or payment. They wear a photo ID. Watch out for middle men who promise you will receive money, especially if they ask for an up-front payment.
  • Get three written estimates for repair work. Then check credentials and contact your local Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce to learn about any complaints against the contractor or business.
  • Before work begins, make sure you get a written contract detailing all the work to be performed, the costs, a projected completion date, and how to negotiate changes and settle disputes. 
  • Make sure the contract clearly states who will obtain the necessary permits. Consider having a lawyer review the contract if substantial costs are involved. Keep a copy of the signed contract. 
  • If the contractor provides any guarantees, they should be written into the contract clearly, stating what is guaranteed, who is responsible for the guarantee and how long the guarantee is valid. 
  • Pay only by check or a credit card. A reasonable down payment may be required to buy materials for some projects, but don't pay anything without a signed contract. 

3 Ways to Apply for Federal Assistance

As we continue to keep all of our stakeholders informed about our response and support efforts with the recent disasters, we wanted to make sure all of our stakeholders know there are three ways disaster survivors can apply for assistance:
  • Register online at www.disasterassistance.gov
  • Register through a web enabled mobile device at m.fema.gov
  • Call 1-800-621-FEMA(3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (local time) seven days a week until further notice.

Individuals and business owners who sustained losses in designated counties can apply for assistance. For a full list of the designated counties, visit the state disasater page: Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

If you know someone in the affected area and you’re communicating with them, please share this information with them.

Financial Literacy & Disaster Preparedness

Disasters not only affect community infrastructure and public works, but they often overcome family finances, making recovery difficult and sometimes impossible. Before, during and after disasters strike, we work with a number of non-profit, voluntary and faith-based groups who specialize in getting disaster survivors financially back on their feet.

As we often say, FEMA is just one part of the emergency management team that helps individuals and communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters.  In this light, we’ve renewed our partnership with Operation HOPE, a non-profit public benefit corporation, to enhance financial counseling services available before, during and after disasters.

Our partnership with Operation HOPE will result in greater access to free financial counseling and information for disaster survivors, including:

  • debt counseling,
  • case management services, and
  • workshops, seminars and manuals for those seeking help at disaster recovery centers.

In conjunction with National Financial Literacy Month and the agreement signing held on April 27, we also will be co-hosting a webinar with Operation HOPE on Emergency Financial Preparedness.  This webinar, scheduled for May 3, will emphasize the importance of what it means to be financially prepared.  We will also touch on why, in the face of disaster, failing to be financially prepared can create even more stress and anxiety than the disaster itself.

So, what can you do to be financially prepared for emergencies?

  • Start by completing an Emergency Financial First Aid Kit. This document can help you keep track of important documentation, like insurance policy information, so you have clear financial records that will help maintain stability in the event of an emergency.

Find additional resources on financial preparedness, more on our partnership with Operation HOPE, and information on helping your community prepare for a disaster at www.CitizenCorps.gov


 

North Carolina: Disaster Recovery Centers

Working with our partners in North Carolina, we opened the first Disaster Recovery Centers after the severe storms struck the state and we plan to open more soon in other counties.

What is a Disaster Recovery Center you ask?  Good question.

We often set up Disaster Recovery Centers to help disaster survivors navigate the federal assistance process.  But an important thing to know is that survivors don’t need to come to the DRC to register, but anyone looking for face to face assistance is welcome to stop by.

If a disaster survivor’s county has been declared, they can also apply for assistance by:

To give you an idea of what to expect at a Disaster Recovery Center, we wanted to pull this video out of the archives.  It’s from 2009 after an earthquake and tsunami struck American Samoa.  In the video, Casey Deshong (FEMA External Affairs) gives a tour of a DRC in American Samoa and talks about the different types of assistance provided:



Here are some other things you should know:

Individual assistance can be provided to eligible individuals and households who are uninsured, or under-insured, and suffered losses due to disaster damage.
It’s important to remember that by law, the amount of individual assistance a person or household can receive is capped (just over $30,000 for this year), and may not cover losses to the extent that homeowner’s policy would. Flood insurance is another way you can protect against the damaging financial effects of a disaster, which is why we are often encouraging families to talk to their insurance agent about protecting your home or business.
This assistance is also intended to support only necessary and serious needs that resulted from the disaster. The best way to make sure you and your family are protected against the devastating impacts of flooding is to have flood insurance.

For additional updates and recovery information, please continue to visit the NC disaster page.

Photo Recap: Deputy Administrator Manning in American Samoa

As many of you know, last week Tim Manning, our Deputy Administrator for Protection and National Preparedness, traveled to Hawaii and American Samoa, as part of a previously scheduled trip to meet with our state, territory and local partners and to get an update on how the recovery efforts are going in American Samoa, 18 months after the island was struck by an earthquake and resulting tsunami.

Tim covered a lot of ground during his time there and got to meet with many members of the emergency management team, from the governor, to the territory's emergency medical services team, to village leaders - and we wanted to share some pictures from his trip.

Deputy Administrator Manning meets with the Chief Fuapopo Avegalio of American Samoa EMS and EMS staff.
Caption: Deputy Administrator Manning meets with the Chief Fuapopo Avegalio of American Samoa EMS and EMS staff. Chief Avegalio reinforced how critical volunteers are to their work and that they focus on supporting emergency preparedness efforts in their different villages on the island.

Deputy Administrator Manning talks with the Chief Fuapopo Avegalio of American Samoa EMS.
Caption: Deputy Administrator Manning talks with the Chief Fuapopo Avegalio of American Samoa EMS. (Courtesy of Bill Thomas, NOAA)


Deputy Administrator Manning and American Samoa Governor Tulafono after meeting to discuss the ongoing recovery efforts on the island.
Caption: Deputy Administrator Manning and American Samoa Governor Tulafono after meeting to discuss the ongoing recovery efforts on the island. Among other things, the governor spoke about the territory’s experiences on Friday, March 11, when they and other Pacific islands were at risk of potential impacts from the tsunami. (Courtesy of Bill Thomas, NOAA)


Deputy Administrator Manning and staff from FEMA’s Recovery Office in American Samoa tour homes being rebuilt for disaster survivors in American Samoa.
Caption: Deputy Administrator Manning and staff from FEMA’s Recovery Office in American Samoa tour homes being rebuilt for disaster survivors in American Samoa. As part of our work to support the territory’s recovery, FEMA has been building homes, in several stages, for disaster survivors whose houses were destroyed by the tsunami.


Deputy Administrator Manning speaks to other federal, state and local members of the emergency management team at the PRiMO conference.
Caption: Deputy Administrator Manning speaks to other federal, state and local members of the emergency management team at the PRiMO conference. (Courtsey of Bill Thomas, NOAA)


Deputy Administrator Manning and PRiMO partners meet with Pago Pago leadership.
Caption: Deputy Administrator Manning and PRiMO partners meet with Pago Pago leadership. From left to right: Dr. Jeffrey Payne, Chair of the Pacific Risk Management ‘Ohana (PRiMO); Representative Henry Sesepasara; Pago Pago Council member Pulu Ae Ae, Jr.; Senator Mauga T. Asuaga; Tim; Dr. Karl Kim, Executive Director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center at the University of Hawaii; Jim Fernandez, NDPC Chair. (Courtesy of Bill Thomas, NOAA)

On the Road with Our Pacific Area Partners

Author: 

As the U.S. government continues to offer support to the people of Japan, and FEMA continues to stay in close contact with our state partners along the West Coast that were impacted by Friday's tsunami, I am traveling to Hawaii and American Samoa this week to meet with our partners in emergency management from across the pacific, and discuss how together, we can build more resilient communities.

Although this trip had been scheduled for quite some time, long before Friday, what just happened in Japan underscores the importance of building strong relationships, across the entire emergency management team. I started out my trip yesterday in Honolulu, where FEMA has our Pacific Area Office, also known as our PAO. The PAO, along with our regional office in Oakland, CA, was in constant contact with Hawaii state officials throughout Friday, and continue to work closely with them as they begin to conduct assessments of the damage the tsunami caused. While in Honolulu, staff from our PAO and regional office and I met with Governor Abercrombie and his staff, where we discussed the aftermath of the tsunami and how the state was faring. While there have been no requests for federal assistance yet, the Governor and I both agreed that our strong partnership helped during the state's immediate response. We were ready to help any way needed, and FEMA will continue to work to support the state as recovery efforts get underway.

For the next three days, I'm in American Samoa, where FEMA has been working to support the territory's ongoing recovery from the devastating tsunami that struck in September 2009. Today, I'll be meeting with Governor Tulafono and other territory and local officials and touring some of our ongoing recovery projects. Tomorrow, I'll be participating in the O'hana Pacific Area Risk Managers Annual Conference, which many of our federal, state and territory partners are attending. There's no doubt that the devastation in Japan will be on all of our minds -- and make our discussions all the more relevant.

The bottom line is, as the people of Samoa learned a year and a half ago, none of us are invincible to a catastrophic disaster. The recent earthquakes in Chile, in New Zealand, which I experienced firsthand, and in Japan should be an important reminder to all of us that earthquakes and other disaster can strike anytime, anywhere. We all need to do our part to be prepared.

I'm looking forward to a week of constructive meetings and dialogues that will help us continue to build on our efforts at FEMA. I'll continue to check in from the road - so stay tuned to the blog for more updates.

- Tim

Improving the Recoupment Process

Recently, you may have heard about or read a report issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General (IG) saying FEMA has identified approximately 160,000 applicants that may have received improper disaster assistance payments totaling approximately $643 million.

Unfortunately, whether through fraud, human or accounting errors, or for other reasons, assistance sometimes goes to individuals who are not eligible for it during the response to any disaster.

The payments in question were made through our Individuals and Households Program during the response and recovery to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and after. The program is intended to help uninsured disaster survivors with temporary housing or to repair damage to their home or for other disaster-related needs. The large scale of the disasters (over $7 billion has been disbursed to help those in need), coupled with safeguards and protections that simply weren’t strong enough at the time, led to a large number of potentially improper payments.

So why haven’t we tried to get the money back?

The recoupment process used under previous administrations was in need of critical improvements.

A 2007 court order from a lawsuit challenging FEMA’s recoupment efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, along with regulations established by the Department of Homeland Security in 2007, led us to suspend our recoupment process.

Plain and simple, the process needed a lot of changes.

So what are we doing about it?

In the years since, we have been working to rectify these problems. The bottom line is we are committed to being responsible stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars, and not only do we agree with the Inspector General’s recommendation that we recoup improper payments, but independent of this report we have been working to finalize plans to recoup improperly awarded funds, while continuing to support Gulf Coast communities as they continue to recover.

We have not been taking this task lightly, as we have also been taking another look at all our documents and information for the over 160,000 disaster survivors, to ensure that we are recouping funds from the right individuals. The survivors of these disasters have been through a lot, and they deserve an open and transparent process.

Since President Obama came into office, FEMA, working closely with our state and local partners in Louisiana and Mississippi, has been able to free up over $5 billion in backlogged projects to restore community infrastructure and services, including $1.8 billion for New Orleans schools. For far too long these projects had been deemed too hard to deal with, or were just simply ignored, and it was slowing the recovery of the Gulf Coast.

We are proud that we’ve been able to cut through the red tape, but realize there is much more work to be done, including finalizing the new recoupment process. We are well underway – and had been well before this IG report was released - in taking the steps we need to finalize that new process so that it is fair and transparent for both disaster survivors and taxpayers.

And what are we doing to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

We have worked diligently to put protections in place that will safeguard against fraud and abuse in future disaster situations and significantly reduce the percentage of improper payments, while ensuring that those in need are receiving assistance as quickly as possible.

As a New Orleans Times-Picayune story from earlier this week points out,

"FEMA has also instituted other rules aimed at avoiding improper payments after disasters, including additional verification requirements for automated payments; the flagging of "high risk" addresses like check-cashing stores, mail drops, cemeteries and jails; and the flagging of duplicate rental payments."

We are proud of the work that has been done, but realize there is much more to do.

- Rachel

Reflections on 2010 from the Louisiana Recovery Office

Author: 

As 2010 draws to a close, it’s customary to reflect upon the highlights of the past year. For us at the Louisiana Recovery Office, 2010 most notably marked the 5th anniversaries of both hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It’s difficult to imagine that so much time has passed.  As Administrator Fugate pointed out, we know the rebuilding efforts have been incredibly challenging and frustrating at time, but they have also been a powerful testament to the courage, hope and determination of the people of the Gulf Coast and it’s impressive to see that progress is still moving forward at full speed.  Additionally, Louisiana was impacted by hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008 and those recovery efforts also continue.

In fact, local parishes invited us to nearly 50 groundbreakings and grand openings of new facilities this year. Construction is vibrant throughout the state, and I am personally proud of the role FEMA has played in helping provide the federal funding for these recovery efforts. More than $3 billion was awarded in 2010 to help rebuild public infrastructure following the four hurricanes. One project that stands out significantly is the $1.8 billion in FEMA funding provided to the Orleans Parish School Board and Recovery School District. Children across Orleans Parish will benefit from this funding, which will help reconstruct more than 80 school campuses in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, property owners throughout the state have been strengthening and elevating their homes and businesses, better preparing them for future storm events. Just recently, $100 million was funded to the state of Louisiana to help such mitigation efforts. We’ve also been updating flood maps and providing outreach to communities, resulting in eight parishes adopting new maps in 2010.

Perhaps one of our most significant accomplishments has been the continued transition of families out of temporary housing such as travel trailers and mobile homes into more permanent, long-term housing solutions. We are continuing to do everything we can to help families still living in temporary housing find more permanent, long-term housing solutions. Working closely with the state, we were able to assist 741 Katrina/Rita households and 276 Gustav/Ike households transition into safer, more viable living arrangements.

As this chapter in our recovery closes, the Louisiana Recovery Office looks forward to what the future will bring. 2011 promises many new challenges and accomplishments, and every one of them will take us one step closer to full recovery. 

- Joe

Strengthening the team in Louisiana

Author: 
FEMA’s recovery mission in Louisiana took an important new step recently, as I was honored to meet separately with outgoing Congressman Joseph Cao and representative-elect Cedric Richmond.

Our great partnership with the state was also exhibited, as top managers from the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP), also attended the meeting, along with FEMA staff, including Joseph Threat, our Acting Executive Director of the Louisiana Recovery Office.

Before becoming the Regional Administrator for FEMA’s Region VI, I served as the head of FEMA’s Louisiana Recovery Office, where I got to know Congressman Cao very well. He has been a long time advocated for recovery in Louisiana and placed a strong focus on institutions of higher learning, particularly in Orleans Parish. During our meeting, both FEMA and our state partners renewed our commitment to continue supporting these universities in their ongoing recovery efforts.

Representative Cao is being succeeded by representative-elect Richmond, who took the opportunity to meet with FEMA and the state of Louisiana leadership, to become more familiar with the ongoing recovery work and future plans for Orleans and Jefferson parishes. I look forward to working closely with representative-elect Richmond in the new Congress.

Both meetings generated positive feedback from everyone involved and helped to further strengthen our shared goal of supporting Louisiana’s continued revival.

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