A guide to the FEMA aid process for flooded Vermont homes
This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
I’ve seen it up close time after time: Getting federal assistance in the wake of a disaster is a confusing and frustrating affair.
Before moving to Vermont just a few weeks ago, I spent years reporting on the aftermath of a series of devastating hurricanes in Louisiana. I’ve talked to countless people trying to secure emergency funds under times of extreme stress, and I’ve highlighted when their experiences haven’t matched officials’ public promises. I’ve spent time with people desperately trying to get financial help so that they can secure stable housing after losing theirs during a storm. I even helped put together a glossary to help folks navigate the alphabet soup of federal grants and loans that kick in post-disaster.
Since historic flooding swept through Vermont last week, Vermont Public and VTDigger have been gathering information on what you can expect when applying for federal assistance — particularly when it comes to housing aid. Here’s what we know so far. (Note that this explainer focuses on individuals, not businesses.)
What questions do you have as you try to get federal disaster assistance? Get in touch by filling out this form. Your input could help guide our future reporting.
Who’s eligible for federal assistance right now?
Residents of nine Vermont counties — Caledonia, Chittenden, Lamoille, Orange, Orleans, Rutland, Washington, Windham and Windsor — are eligible for Individual Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as of July 27. Other counties that also faced flooding could be approved as FEMA continues to assess damage on the ground.
You must be a U.S. citizen, non-citizen national or qualified non-citizen (including refugees and people granted asylum) to apply.
What is Individual Assistance? What should I expect from the application process?
Individual Assistance can cover such expenses as repairing damage to your primary residence, rental support if you’re displaced from your home, and loss of personal property (belongings in your home), among other things. It’s sometimes referred to as the Individuals and Households Program.
It’s meant to help with costs not covered by insurance — but it’s not a replacement for insurance. FEMA aid likely won’t replace everything you lost. It’s meant to meet basic needs and “make homes habitable, safe and sanitary again,” said FEMA spokesperson Briana Summer Fenton in a phone interview.
You can apply online at disasterassistance.gov, on the FEMA app, by calling the FEMA helpline at 1-800-621-3362, or in person (more on that below).
When you register, you’ll be asked for identifying information like your Social Security number, an address where the disaster happened and where you’re currently staying, and a description of the damage you experienced. That’s why it’s important to document your damage before you start cleaning up.
After you apply, FEMA will determine what kind of assistance you’re eligible to receive. An inspector may get in touch with you to assess the damage; you can ask to see their government ID to confirm they’re not a scammer.
How much money are we talking about here?
The maximum amount FEMA provides for housing-related assistance is $41,000, though financial assistance to rent temporary housing and for “accessibility-related real property costs” aren’t subject to that cap.
At a press conference July 19 in Berlin, William Roy, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer in Vermont, said the agency’s average award to flood victims in the state thus far has been $6,100.
That’s an early figure: Many Vermonters have not yet had their homes inspected by the agency for damage. But it’s a fairly typical award after disasters across the country, based on past analyses.
When should I apply?
The deadline to register is Sept. 12, according to Fenton. That’s a month later than FEMA representatives initially stated last week.
What should I do if I have insurance?
If you have insurance, you should file a claim before registering with FEMA, according to Fenton. FEMA won’t duplicate any benefits you get from insurance, though it can potentially provide funds for repairs beyond what your insurance will cover.
You don’t have to wait for your insurance company to get back to you before seeking federal assistance, Fenton said.
Most standard homeowners insurance policies don’t cover floods; flood insurance is a separate policy. Vermont Legal Aid is encouraging people to file insurance claims even if their policies don’t cover floods, so they can show FEMA their losses aren’t accounted for, according to staff attorney Barbara Prine.
I rent my home. Can I apply for federal disaster aid?
You can. Your landlord will be responsible for damage to the building itself, but you can apply for FEMA aid to help cover the cost of any personal property you lost: items such as furniture, appliances, clothes, and school and work supplies. That’s if your belongings aren’t covered by renter’s insurance, or by coverage your landlord may have.
Prine, from Vermont Legal Aid, recommended that renters with roommates apply to FEMA as one household, using one application. The organization has more information on renters’ rights after a disaster here.
Renters and homeowners who can’t live in their homes because of damage may qualify for rental assistance from FEMA to help cover the cost of a temporary lease somewhere else. You’ll need to secure new housing before getting these funds, Fenton confirmed in an email — an arrangement that could prove challenging in Vermont’s tight rental housing market.
FEMA also offers reimbursement for temporarily staying in a hotel or motel, Fenton confirmed.
What if I get referred to the Small Business Administration to apply for a loan?
In some instances, FEMA refers applicants to the Small Business Administration, which offers low-interest loans to both homeowners and renters after disasters.
Currently, disaster loans of up to $200,000 are available to homeowners for uninsured or underinsured losses, according to SBA spokesperson Stephen Clark. That money can be used for home repairs, rebuilding, or relocation. Both homeowners and renters are eligible for up to $40,000 to repair or replace personal property damaged or destroyed by the flooding.
Interest rates are set at 2.5%, with terms up to 30 years. For the first year of the loan, there’s no accrued interest and no required payments, “so you have time to use the money and get back on your feet,” Clark said.
There’s no obligation to accept the loan once you’re approved, and you have 60 days to decide, Clark said. But in some cases, if you’re approved for an SBA loan and don’t accept it, you won’t be referred back to FEMA for personal property or transportation assistance, according to FEMA’s website.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also offering grants and low-interest loans to low-income homeowners in rural areas impacted by flooding.
Can I get help with my application? What if I don’t have reliable internet access or phone service?
As of July 22, FEMA is operating two disaster recovery centers to help residents apply for assistance, upload documents and answer questions about the application process. SBA representatives will be available as well.
Both centers are open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. They’re located at:
- Rutland: 88 Merchants Row
- Waterbury: 294 Armory Dr.
According to Fenton, these centers will remain open “until the needs are met of the community.” They’re more permanent fixtures than the agency’s mobile intake centers that continue to move locations across the state every few days. An updated list of recovery centers can be found here.
People who need help in a language other than English will be directed to the FEMA helpline for translation assistance, Fenton said.
The state is also operating a number of resource centers. Find more information here.
What if I get a letter saying I’m ineligible for assistance?
After you register with FEMA, the agency will send you a determination letter. It may say you’re ineligible for assistance — “but that is not a denial,” according to a FEMA press release issued July 19.
You may need to provide more information, such as proof you occupied or owned the home where damage occurred, in order to receive assistance, according to the press release. You can also appeal FEMA’s decision within 60 days of receiving your determination letter with documents supporting your claim, such as a contractor’s estimate for repairs.
You can also seek outside help with your case. “If someone gets denied FEMA and believes that they should be eligible, that would be a great time to call Legal Aid,” said Prine, the staff attorney. You can reach them online or by calling 1-800-889-2047.
We want to hear how applying for federal assistance is going for you. Get in touch with us by filling out this form.
Flooding recovery assistance and other key resources
- To apply for federal financial assistance, visit disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.
- Is your community under a boil-water notice? Find a statewide list here.
- For state road closure information, visit newengland511.org or @511VT on Twitter. To check the status of your town's local roads, consult your town website or social media.
- School activities and child care program closures are collected here.
- Find the latest forecasts and water levels for specific rivers from the National Weather Service.
- Are you returning to flooded property? Get tips on what to expect and how to stay safe while cleaning your home or car and how to deal with trash and debris.
- Here are tips for avoiding scams that can crop up after a disaster.
- Flood safety tips have been translated into 16 languages here.
- The Vermont Professionals of Color Network is connecting BIPOC Vermonters with recovery assistance.
- Business owners can find tips and resources from Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.
- To find more resources, visit vermont.gov/flood, vermont211.org or call Vermont 2-1-1.
- You can also report flood damage to 2-1-1 to help the state gather data, according to Vermont Emergency Management. (If you are a homeowner, you should also contact your insurance company.)
- The Vermont Agency of Agriculture has provided a resource page for farmers.
- Find the latest guidance about how to help with recovery.