JACKSON, TENN. -- Since Hurricane Katrina, and the attention it focused on the federal response, many expect to see the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on the scene even before the danger has passed. While FEMA plays an important role in helping state and local agencies prepare for disasters, it is the local emergency agencies -- police, firefighters, medical teams, and utility crews -- who are the first responders in a major emergency.
After the first responders come the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other voluntary organizations to provide food, shelter and essential needs to displaced and injured families.
Only after the President approves a Governor's request for a federal disaster declaration is FEMA permitted by law to respond to the emergency with money, relief supplies, and additional personnel to support the state and local authorities' response and recovery efforts. That support may include such things as water, ice, blankets and ready-to-eat meals, generators, medical teams, rescue helicopters, air transportation, and urban search and rescue (USAR) teams.
The agency also deploys community relations specialists into the damaged neighborhoods to meet victims face-to-face, talk about their immediate needs, and counsel them on how to get financial and other assistance to begin their recovery. If needed, FEMA can call on other federal agencies such as the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Public Health Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense, and Department of Justice to add their special capabilities and resources to the federal effort.
However, FEMA's major responsibility is recovery. Its programs focus on helping disaster victims find temporary housing, repair their homes, replace personal possessions, and deal with other uninsured losses. FEMA also provides funds to help communities repair or replace damaged infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, pumping stations, electric utilities, to pay overtime for public safety personnel, and to help clear debris.
When disaster victims call to register with FEMA for financial assistance they are asked for personal information to determine their eligibility. This is not red tape; it is responsible fiscal practice. In fact, there is no paperwork at all for the applicants to qualify for Individuals and Households Program (IHP) assistance from FEMA. Once the applicant's property has been seen by a FEMA inspector, it is usually only a matter of days before the first assistance funds are approved. As the applicant's needs change, so does the assistance that is available from FEMA and other sources.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) provides low-interest disaster loans for renters, homeowners, businesses of all sizes. The SBA loan application is also used to evaluate the applicant's ongoing needs, even if that person does not receive an SBA disaster loan.