Thursday, November 1, 2012

Surviving a Disaster: Why We Needed FEMA

Disasters suck.  No two ways about it.  And cans of food really don't help.  Especially canned pumpkin. 

One evening you are home, safe, secure, warm, comfortable, cooking a meal, grabbing a cold drink from your refrigerator... and a few hours later you are living in an alternate universe of filth, chaos, water, destruction; a world that is dark, cold, scary, depressing, and overwhelming.

After a disaster, you live in an alternate universe.

We had our chance to be part of that alternate universe of a disaster a few years back.  I wrote about it here, at my Albany Park Flood blog, as my first inroad into the world of blogging.  Our disaster, while a FEMA-declared disaster, was so, so MINOR compared to the incredible mess left by Superstorm Hurricane Sandy that so many people in New York, New Jersey, and other eastern states are dealing with.   

When I look at the pictures of New York and New Jersey and think a bit, I can put myself right back where we were four years ago... dealing with a life that will never be the same.  The feeling of shock as you look at valued possessions that are now just water-logged junk alternates with the joy of reclaiming a few family photographs or possessions from mildew and water.  Sometimes all you can do is to concentrate on little things to avoid the reality of the calamity that you have to deal with.

But we did have FEMA.  Let me tell you how FEMA helps.  

Our disaster came rolling through our home just a few months after my husband was out of work after major surgery.  He was back to work, but we were just getting caught up with bills and we didn't have a lot of spare cash lying around.  In fact, we had no spare cash lying around.

Fortunately, we did not have to evacuate and we were able to stay in our home.  The damage had been confined to what had once been a fully finished beautiful basement/T.V. room/bedroom/laundry room.  Some would probably say that we didn't have enough damage to be "entitled" to any FEMA funds. 

Now we did have "sewer/drain" insurance--- private insurance-- to the tune of $10,000.  The damage was well over double that, but $10,000 was a nice chunk of change.  The insurance adjuster came a day or so after the four feet of water had drained from our bedroom/T.V. room, and told us that we certainly would be entitled to the maximum on our "sewer/drain" insurance rider.  

Great!  We used the last of our cash reserves to put a down payment on a new water heater and furnace.  (You'd be surprised how fast cash goes when you have experienced some kind of disaster.  Loss of food, loss of clothes, loss of shoes, loss of bedding...  many things that you need to replace NOW.  Many things, like cleaning supplies and a dehumidifier, that you need to buy NOW.)  So now we just had to wait for that 10 grand. 

Which took two months.  

Two months for private insurance money; a few days for FEMA money.     

Meanwhile we waited to be declared a FEMA disaster. Because we weren't as widespread a disaster as Hurricane Superstorm Sandy, we weren't declared a FEMA disaster for about two weeks after the event.  (New Jersey and several other states have already been declared disasters, just two days after the storms.)  We had a FEMA adjuster in our home within a day or so after we were declared a disaster.  Because we had private insurance, we would not be entitled to much FEMA help.  

But, surprise, surprise!  Just a couple of days later there was a deposit for about $1000 in our bank account.  And a few days later, a deposit for another $600.  It was MUCH faster than the money that we eventually got from our private insurance.

We were also entitled to emergency disaster food stamps.  That was a more difficult process involving a long wait.  Eventually we were cleared for about $400 worth of food to replace the food that we lost as we had no power for days.  This came about a month after the flood;  we really could have used that money about 5 days after the flood when the electricity was turned back on and we were cleaning out the refrigerator, but we were still struggling financially so it was a great help.

Why did the insurance take so long compared to FEMA?  

Well, it's the federal government vs. private corporations.  There were fewer levels of approval for FEMA money apparently.  When we got the money from FEMA, it was directly deposited into our bank account.  We had immediate access to it.  When we did finally get the insurance check (six weeks after the flood), after many phone calls and many people telling us different things, we deposited it in the bank.. which put a ten day hold on it.    

So we finally had access to that insurance money about 8 weeks after the flood.  

Disaster damage lingers; emotionally, physically, financially

We have still not been able to repair all of the damage; our basement is now just that... a basement, not a value-adding lower level living area.  Houses in this area are still selling very slowly (and for lower prices) because of the huge flood four years ago, not counting the housing slump.  But sewer work and various projects designed for improved flood control are ongoing or completed.  I believe that the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA are or were involved in the planning and/or funding for some of these projects.

Counting on the states and the private sector for disaster assistance? 

There is no way that states can go it alone when disasters are involved.  And as for that Republican adage that somehow that competition in the private sector makes the private sector more efficient... well, not always, as most of us know.  We waited eight weeks before we had access to private insurance funds.  We waited about a week (after our disaster was approved for FEMA help) to get government funds.

My most heartfelt prayers and thoughts to the victims of Sandy..  I wrote about Hurricane Irene last year, and I can't believe that Sandy caused havoc in some of the same states.  I'm glad Vermont was spared.

I can bet that many people who were harmed by Irene are still struggling, a year later.  It is very hard to recover from such extreme loss.

Why We Don't Need Cans

And I wouldn't have been that thrilled had someone knocked on my door with a bunch of cans.  No power, no gas, no running water for some people (we did  continue to have running water).. and cans?

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