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Aug. 14--The Federal Emergency Management Agency's process for responding to disasters like this week's flooding in southeast Michigan can occur quickly, but that doesn't make it any less bureaucratic.
Before FEMA comes in, several things have to happen. Teams of assessors have to determine losses and determine if the disaster meets certain criteria. If it's too much for state and local government to handle, a governor can ask for help from the president in the form of a major disaster declaration.
In the case of catastrophic disasters, federal aid can take the form of search and rescue, electrical power, food, water and shelter. But in most cases, it's in the recovery phase where residents, as well as state and local governments, feel the most financial strain and need assistance.
Once a request is made, FEMA makes a recommendation based on losses to the president, and the White House approves or denies the request. It's a process that could take hours or weeks.
Once approved, however, it can -- depending on the scope of the disaster -- lead to aid under a couple of FEMA programs:
Under this program, affected residents and business owners could qualify for up to $32,400 in assistance this year. (The figure changes annually.)
After a disaster declaration, FEMA sets up a field office and a toll-free number to help people apply. Federal aid could then be provided to help with temporary housing, housing repairs and replacement of damaged items -- though it's not intended to replace insurance.
There are also disaster grants to help meet expenses not covered by insurance, including replacement of personal property, as well as medical, dental and funeral expenses and transportation.
Low-interest disaster loans may also be available to cover repair or replacement of homes, automobiles, clothing and other personal property. There are also programs to help with unemployment assistance, legal aid and crisis counseling.
Once an application is taken, the damaged property is inspected and, if approved, an applicant receives a check for assistance. Loan applications take longer to approve. The deadline for most applications is within 60 days of the president's declaration of a major disaster.
Applicants must provide proof of identity and sign a declaration that they are U.S. citizens, noncitizen nationals or qualified immigrants. Applicants may also need to provide proof of occupancy, ownership, income loss, and/or information concerning their housing situation prior to the disaster.
Applicants are asked to keep all receipts and records for any housing expenses incurred as a result of the disaster, including receipts for repair supplies, labor and rent.
Audits are later done to ensure aid went only to eligible applicants and went for its intended purpose.
If applicants have insurance, assistance provided by FEMA should be considered an advance and must be repaid to FEMA upon receipt of an insurance settlement payment.
Under FEMA's public assistance program, aid is provided to state and local governments to help pay the costs of rebuilding or repairing damaged infrastructure.
However, there are thresholds for losses that a state must meet -- as well as other criteria -- in order to qualify, though they are relatively low.
For statewide assistance, the damage must top $1.39 per capita for the statewide population from the previous Census, which for Michigan would be $13.7 million.
For county-by-county assistance, which could also be available under a disaster declaration, the counties would have to exceed losses of $3.50 per capita. That would be $2.94 million for Macomb, $4.21 million for Oakland, and $6.37 million for Wayne counties.
In general, public assistance programs pay for 75% of the approved project costs and can go for debris removal, emergency protective measures and public services, as well as repair of damaged public property, loans to communities for government functions and grants for public schools.
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