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The Disaster Law Project

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FEMA

“These groups are similarly situated, and FEMA has no compelling justification for treating them differently.”

Related imageIn the wake of Superstorm Sandy, FEMA reached out to 144,000 East-coast homeowners whose flood claims were wrongly denied, giving them a second chance to access the recovery help they needed, and were entitled by law to receive.  

We want to know why FEMA won’t do the same for homeowners in Puerto Rico.  

Read our letter to Congress demanding immediate transparency and outreach from FEMA:

“[We] are deeply concerned that FEMA has wrongly denied property repair and replacement assistance to qualified homeowners under its Individuals and Households Program [IHP], which helps low-income survivors meet their basic needs. FEMA has refused to notify individual applicants of the Agency’s error and to clarify the process it will use to review resubmitted benefit applications going forward. Without explanation, FEMA maintains that it will not notify individual homeowners wrongly denied benefits following Hurricane Maria, even though it did notify nearly twice as many individual homeowners wrongly denied insurance payouts following Superstorm Sandy. These groups are similarly situated, and FEMA has no compelling justification for treating them differently.”

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Thousands in Puerto Rico Wrongly Denied FEMA Aid: We’re Working to Fix That

Isamar holds her nine-month-old baby at their makeshift home in San Isidro, Puerto Rico, on December 23rd, 2017.

More than 75,000 low-income homeowners in Puerto Rico are still waiting for help to rebuild their homes, more than a year after Hurricane Maria swept the island. FEMA initially rejected their application for benefits because these applicants did not present a registered certificate of title to prove they owned the damaged property.

But these applicants did own their home under Puerto Rico law. They either acquired it through inheritance, or through a process of “prescription,” which typically involves someone making use of an abandoned building or land. Puerto Rico doesn’t require this type of property to be registered in order to establish ownership.

FEMA denied them anyway.

Thanks to the work of local advocates, FEMA finally agreed that these applicants should have been recognized as property owners all along, and will allow them to re-apply for benefits using a “Sworn Declaration” to verify ownership. But because FEMA has refused to notify individual applicants of these new developments, thousands of homeowners may never know their benefits were wrongly denied, and will continue to lose out on critical recovery assistance they are entitled by law to receive.

What we want is simple: FEMA must notify individual applicants that their benefits were denied due to the Agency’s mistake, and give them a meaningful opportunity to reapply. By one count, that’s about 77,000 homeowners. We know FEMA can do this, because it’s done it before.

Between 2012 and 2015, thousands of homeowners on the East-coast were wrongly denied insurance payouts following Superstorm Sandy. FEMA set up a claims review process to make things right, and notified 144,000 individual homeowners of the opportunity to participate in that process. That’s about twice the number of applicants wrongly denied benefits in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. If FEMA can reach out to individual homeowners on the East-coast, why can’t it reach out to similarly situated homeowners in Puerto Rico? We’ve yet to hear a compelling reason.

We’ll continue to work with organizations like Fundacion Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico, and others, until this problem is solved. In our Letter to Congress delivered on Monday, members of the NLIHC’s Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition asked for legislative oversight to ensure that FEMA is properly administering the nation’s disaster recovery program, and affording all hurricane survivors, wherever the storm strikes, to effective and equal treatment.

– Kathleen Bergin

Photo credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

There’s Still Time To Apply For Disaster Benefits In Puerto Rico: 5 Things To Know

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.

Continue reading “There’s Still Time To Apply For Disaster Benefits In Puerto Rico: 5 Things To Know”

NYC Passes New Disaster Legislation After Hurricane Sandy. Now The Hard Part.

Property owners and other qualifying individuals in New York City will be given additional time following a disaster to repair and clear their property, without incurring penalties for certain municipal code violations.  New disaster legislation passed by the City Council takes effect August 8, 2016, and applies retroactively to fines imposed after Hurricane Sandy.

Sandy - homes destroyedI’ve posted a detailed summary of new developments here.  In this post, I’ll explain why the scope of protection under one of those laws, Int. 1037, depends on how quickly and effectively the City implements a recovery program following the next major disaster.  The record from Hurricane Sandy is not encouraging, but perhaps the benefit of that experience will produce better results in the future.

 

 

A Quick Review of Int. 1037

Continue reading “NYC Passes New Disaster Legislation After Hurricane Sandy. Now The Hard Part.”

Flint: Why It’s Not A “Federal” Disaster

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has asked the federal government to declare Flint a major disaster on account of the city’s lead water crisis. That would make $96 million in sorely needed federal aid available to clean the water, fix the broken infrastructure, and provide health care to people who will suffer the life-long consequences of lead poisoning.  But the Obama Administration said no, prompting an appeal from state and local lawmakers who are desperate for extra cash.

So what gives?

Federal disaster declarations are governed by the Stafford Act, which limits when the President, through executive agencies, can declare a disaster.  The law provides for two types of declarations: an “Emergency” or a “Major Disaster.”  Some federal aid is allocated in an Emergency, but much more is allocated in a Major Disaster.

An “Emergency” is defined as “any occasion or instance” that requires federal assistance to supplement state and local efforts and capacities to save lives, protect property, or avert a catastrophe. Continue reading “Flint: Why It’s Not A “Federal” Disaster”

FEMA Re-Opens Sandy Claims – Now What?

DLC - storm surgeBy now the news is out that FEMA will reopen more than 140,000 claims filed by Hurricane Sandy survivors in light of wide-spread fraud in the National Flood Insurance Program.  Thousands of people whose homes were destroyed were cheated out of settlements after insurance companies or their engineering contractors falsified damage assessment reports. How bad is it?

  • 92% of claims submitted on behalf of thousands of low-income clients represented by one legal assistance group in NY were denied.
  • A US magistrate judge cited “reprehensible gamesmanship” by engineering firms that issued baseless reports against disaster victims at the behest of insurance companies.
  • FEMA regulations encourage this type of gamesmanship by penalizing insurance companies more severely for over-paying than they do for under-paying disaster victims.

In the coming weeks, FEMA will meet with stakeholders to discuss, among other things, the process that will govern how claims are submitted, reviewed, and appealed.  It also issued a statement last week saying that it will focus on “improving the customer experience through the entire claims process.”

This is critical.  No matter how fair and objective the claims process is, it means nothing if it can’t be understood by every-day people.  For example, following Hurricane Katrina, this is how the Department of Housing and Urban Development (which administers FEMA housing programs), through their website, informed people of their eligibility for certain disaster relief benefits:

  • The only families eligible to receive the October 2009 TRP are those that have been issued an HCV on or after July 31, 2009 and have returned the FRTA to the PHA by September 30, 2009.  Families that were issued HCV vouchers before July 32, 2009 will not be eligible to receive the October 2009 TRP.
  • PHAs [are] required to complete the HAP registries with new information about the HCV conversion process.
  • The site also anticipated that someone would pose this question: If a family is in the HCV conversion process at a separate PHA from where the family receives TRP, is the PHA assisting with TRP required to contact the PHA assisting with the HCV conversion process in order to determine if the family is eligible for the September and/or October 2009 TRP?

There are lessons to be learned here.  If FEMA and other agencies responsible for disaster relief are serious about “improving the customer experience throughout the claims process,” they need to start communicating in a way that is understandable by the very people they serve.

-Kathleen Bergin (photo credit: Reuters/Mike Segar)

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