FEMA disaster relief: New aid, streamlined application process for storm victims

For the thousands of people who have been devastated by this month's floods and storms, new help is available from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

This year, FEMA announced its biggest changes in 20 years to create more flexibility for people who need financial assistance after a disaster.

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President Biden has declared disasters in seven counties: Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, Polk, San Jacinto, Trinity, and Walker.

People affected in those counties can apply for FEMA aid, including Serious Needs Assistance.

"Serious needs assistance is a one-time payment of $750 that covers serious needs such as food, baby formula, breastfeeding supplies, things that they may need in the immediate moment," explains FEMA spokesperson Lenisha Smith.

FEMA also now offers more flexible Displacement Assistance for immediate housing costs for those who can't return home, and help for underinsured people to make up the difference for repairs that insurance does not cover.

"If you have insurance, if you don't have insurance, we encourage all to apply to FEMA for FEMA assistance.  You may be eligible for assistance for uninsured or underinsured damages to your home," said Smith.

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The criteria for Home Repair Assistance has been expanded, regardless of pre-existing conditions or for repairs to prevent future damage.  

There is assistance available to replace a family's damaged computer, or to replace tools and equipment for people who are self-employed.  

And FEMA has streamlined the application process. Applicants no longer must be rejected for a Small Business Administration loan first in order to be eligible for FEMA aid. They can apply for both at the same time.

This link outlines the changes to FEMA relief.

When hiring contractors for repairs, the Better Business Bureau warns people with damaged homes to watch out for scams.

"You want to watch out for anyone who's being really high pressure, wanting you to hire them right on the spot without allowing you to do any research, and even trying to get into your home when you don't even know this person," said the BBB's Leah Napoliello.

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General contractors are not required to be licensed in Texas. But to protect yourself from scams, you can check out a contractor with the Better Business Bureau and references from other customers, check whether they're insured, get estimates from three or four contractors, and get a written contract.  

Napoliello says pay no more than one-third the cost up front, one-third at a midpoint, and one-third at the end.

"When the work is totally done and you're completely satisfied with how everything has come out," said Napoliello.

People who have sustained losses can apply for FEMA assistance through its website, through the FEMA app, or by calling: (800) 621-FEMA (3362).

Lone Star Legal Aid says its lawyers are available to help people secure proof of ownership to obtain FEMA assistance and other legal challenges for those who qualify.  It has a Disaster Relief page on its website.