Project Porchlight, legal aid groups offer help filing FEMA, insurance claims

A credit counseling agency and legal aid groups are offering assistance filing FEMA applications and insurance claims after the ice storm left so many with burst pipes. 

"Open this up and this is just overflowing with dirty water and it has a horrendous stench," said Joaquin Escobar, showing us his family water main. 

Escobar said his family lost running water when their home's pipes burst.  But he says his application to FEMA for help was quickly declined. 

"They denied it after a day when I applied, and they stated that they didn't see no issues with it," he said.

Computer centers open to help people apply for FEMA aid

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia is opening computer centers to help people apply for FEMA aid as they try to recover from the crippling winter storm weeks later.

Through Project Porchlight, non-profit credit counseling agency Money Management International is helping people file FEMA applications and insurance claims, or appeals if they've been turned down. 

"They're either in a hurry or they misunderstood the question. So they put information down that resulted in the denial. So when they go through the coaching process, our experts can help them find those mistakes and hopefully get them a better resolution," said Thomas Nitzsche with Money Management International.  

MMI provides personalized recovery plans and counseling to minimize costs.  The agency also helps people deal with high utility bills, which are sometimes in the thousands of dollars for customers of variable rate electricity plans. 

The agency can help to negotiate payment arrangements, or even debt forgiveness, with utility providers.  

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Nitzsche says customers may not want to pay off high utility bills entirely while the state is still exploring ways to help those customers.  

"Because they have put a moratorium on the utility shut-offs, not going straight to your savings and pulling that out. I saw a heartbreaking story where a senior had drained his savings account to pay the utility bill right away," said Nitzsche. 

He says MMI is ready to help people recover from this disaster. 

"I'm not sure how long we can endure what we're going through now. And a lot of folks out there are going through the same thing I'm going through," said Escobar.

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Help from Project Porchlight is free. You can call (877) 833-1742. MMI is also waiving start-up fees for people financially impacted by the storm.  

The State Bar of Texas, the American Bar Association, and local legal aid providers also offer free assistance with FEMA and insurance claims, home repair contracts, price-gouging, and counseling on landlord-tenant issues. Call (800) 504-7030 or go to TexasLawHelp.org or texasbar.com.

You can apply for FEMA aid directly through DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling (800) 621-3362.

West Houston Assistance Ministries has a Winter Freeze Emergency Fund to help people with rent, hotel costs, and insurance deductibles.  It is open to West Houston residents of the following zip codes:  77042, 77057, 77063, 77072, 77077, 77082, and 77083. 

ReadyHarris.org has a list of Winter Weather Recovery Resources. You can also call 211, the United Way Hotline for assistance. 

If you are unable to work because of damage sustained from the winter storm, you may be eligible for Disaster Unemployment Assistance. You must apply by March 26, 2021. Learn more and apply at the Texas Workforce Commission