If you’re in Puerto Rico, you now have until June 18 to apply for disaster benefits.

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This is the second time FEMA extended the filing deadline, giving applicants nearly 9 months to submit a claim. That might seem like a long time, but it makes sense given FEMA’s slow start and lingering recovery roadblocks. FEMA took weeks to open the first Disaster Recovery Center where survivors could apply in person, and widespread power outages made it impossible for people who couldn’t reach a DRC to apply by phone or on-line.
Things are improving, certainly, and FEMA so far has processed about 1.2 million applications for individual and household benefits. But with roughly 150,000 customers still waiting for electricity, it’s impossible to say that everyone’s had a fair opportunity to apply.
FEMA has the authority to extend the deadline again, but my hunch says it won’t. By comparison, FEMA accepted applications for 6 months following Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, but we’re nearing a month past that point already for Hurricane Maria.
Moreover, even if Puerto Rico’s Governor, Ricardo Rossello, formally requests an extension (which he’d have to before one is granted), FEMA could reject the request if it’s satisfied with the pace of progress and number of applications received between now and then.
So apply as soon as you can – here’s how:

  • On-line at www.disasterassistance.gov;
  • Via phone at 1-800-621-3362 (voice, 711/VRS); 800-462-7585 (TDD); or
  • In person at a Disaster Recovery Center (find one scroll to the bottom of this page).

This FEMA FAQs sheet provides more information, and a video link that walks you through the process of filing and tracking your application. Take a look, but here are five additional tips to keep in mind – offered as info, of course, not actual legal advice:

1. Get help from a lawyer by calling 1-800-310-7029. That’s the number for the Disaster Legal Hotline, a service set up by the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association and their pro-bono partners. Leave your basic info, and they’ll connect you with a lawyer who’s done this kind of thing before. The lawyer can answer questions you have about the application process, work with FEMA on your behalf, and help file an appeal if you’re denied or awarded less than you expected. It’s free for most people who call.


You can file an application on your own, but FEMA has denied roughly 60% of all applications. A lawyer can help you beat those odds.

2. You don’t have to own a home to qualify for benefits. You probably already know that FEMA helps homeowners repair or rebuild damaged property. But renters and students are also eligible for certain FEMA benefits. If your apartment was destroyed, or you’re forced to move while it’s under repair, FEMA could cover the costs of temporary housing.
Along with homeowners, you might qualify for other benefits too, like the cost of meeting “serious needs,” and replacing “necessary” personal items, like:

  • Cars and bikes used for essential transportation;
  • Clothes, furniture and appliances;
  • Computers and textbooks;
  • Medical and dental expenses;
  • And certain other losses associated with the disaster.

Here’s a helpful list of all the benefits you might qualify for, and a more detailed explanation of program requirements and eligibility qualifications here.

3. Apply even if you don’t have documents: FEMA will need proof of “occupancy” and/or “ownership” before it cuts a check to verify that you’re a victim of the Hurricane, and not some unrelated event like a fire or subsequent windstorm. But proof can be tricky to come by in places like Puerto Rico, where so many homes are inherited without a mortgage or formal transfer of title, and where lease agreements aren’t always in writing. Even if documents do exist, they might have been lost in the storm or left behind in the rush to evacuate.
There’s good news, though. Last month, FEMA agreed to accept a “self-declaration” as proof of of ownership/occupancy from applicants who don’t have a mortgage statement or similar document. If you’re applying by phone or in person, however, don’t be surprised if the person you’re working with doesn’t know about the new policy. There’s a good chance that person doesn’t work for FEMA full time, but was hired on a temporary basis and hasn’t been told about the latest developments. Bookmark the FEMA webpage announcing the change so you can direct them to it.
It’s unclear whether FEMA will apply this policy outside of Puerto Rico, but the same problem arose in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as I suspect we’ll start hearing about it as American Samoa starts recovering from Cyclone Gita. Legislation is reportedly being introduced to make this policy permanent, so I will update any developments on that.

4. FEMA grants are free, loans are not – be clear on what you’re getting. Depending on your circumstances, FEMA will either pay you directly, or offer you a low interest loan to cover certain costs. But you have to apply for the loan first to see which category you fall into. The FEMA rep will explain this when you apply. More information can be found here.

5. Appeal … and appeal again. If your application is denied, or you’re given less than you think you’re entitled to, you can appeal. Some cases are complicated, but many can be resolved by submitting missing paperwork, or correcting a date or address that was wrongly entered into your file.
By law you have 60 days to appeal – counting from the date on the notice that FEMA sent in response to your application. But file an appeal even if you missed the deadline. FEMA has been known to review late filings if you have a good reason for missing the deadline. They’ve also reconsidered appeals that have already been denied – so say lawyers who’ve done this for a while.
So submit an application, and file an appeal if you need to. But first call a lawyer. They can help.

-Kathleen Bergin

photo credit: Natural Wonders Network