Federal aid not just for victims of mudslide

As recovery crews continue the backbreaking work of searching through the Oso mudslide for signs of the missing, the aftereffects of the disaster are starting to be tallied.

For disasters like the mudslide, Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, the road to longer-term recovery is often paved with federal money.

The victims of the mudslide number 33 confirmed dead and 12 people missing. But approximately 30 houses were also destroyed in the slide. More homes upstream of the slide were damaged by flooding when the North Fork Stillaguamish River backed up.

So far, 229 people have applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for housing assistance.

Meanwhile, residents of Darrington now face commutes of up to three hours each way to get to jobs in Arlington, Marysville or Everett. And scores of volunteers who have taken time off work to help are taking a financial hit of their own.

While National Guard units are providing support on the debris pile, FEMA is stepping forward to help people and businesses begin the long process of returning to something approaching normal life.

How FEMA does this is not always apparent to people suddenly dealing with longer commutes, loss of work, property damage, or in the worst case scenario, loss of family members. This week FEMA is expected to open two Disaster Recovery Centers, one in Darrington and another in Arlington.

The two centers will be walk-in offices with staff equipped to answer questions about the kinds of help available to people affected by the slide.

The key first step for those affected by the slide is to register with FEMA online at DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 800-621-3362.*

“Right now we encourage anyone affected in any way by the incident in Oso to register for possible assistance,” FEMA spokesman Don Jacks said.

Emphasis is on the word “possible,” because not all requests for aid are approved, and registration isn’t the same thing as asking for aid.

Rather, registration is necessary, Jacks said, because it opens up the option for federal relief money once traditional sources of help have been exhausted.

The reason is that most of FEMA’s emergency relief is intended to fill in the gaps left by state programs, insurance policies and other relief.

A person who lost a house in the slide should register with FEMA but also immediately file a claim with their insurance company, Jacks said.

Ultimately, the homeowner may be able to recoup some money that their insurance company didn’t provide.

FEMA assistance comes from a pool of federal money used to respond to all disaster declarations in the U.S.

“We don’t talk about any kind of limit or what money is available,” Jacks said. Rather, it’s considered to be there for when it is needed.

While most FEMA money works its way through local government, the exception is for emergency housing.

“One of the first questions people will be asked is if someone has a place to live,” Jacks said.

For displaced homeowners, or for those whose homeowner policies might take several weeks or months to come through with payments, FEMA provides some temporary rent assistance. Homeowners can qualify for up to 18 months of rental assistance, but must re-apply every three months in order to keep receiving it, Jacks said. Renters might also qualify for help for shorter periods of time.

Otherwise, grants for lost wages, home repairs, replacing lost personal property or to meet medical, dental, funeral, transportation, child care or other costs not covered by insurance will be dispersed through local government agencies, even if FEMA is providing that money.

The Small Business Administration also offers help in the form of loans for companies, farmers, nonprofits and other organizations that have suffered from the disaster. The Disaster Recovery Centers will have information about assistance for those groups as well.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or cwinters@heraldnet.com.

FEMA registration

In order to be eligible for any FEMA benefits, applicants must first register, either online at DisasterAssistance.gov, or by calling 800-621-3362*. The registration process takes about 20 minutes in either case. Respondents may be asked about insurance policies and numbers, details about lost property, a viable telephone number and an address where they can receive mail.

Correction, April 8, 2014: The phone number for FEMA assistance is 800-621-3362. It was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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