EVENT - Calling FEMA

Timeline: Monday, August 29, 2005,  1:00 PM CDT
Location: Sugar Land, Texas

If you recall, my initial action plan looked like this:

1.  Establish Communications with Everyone
2.  Determine the condition of my house.
3.  Determine my immediate financial condition.
4.  Determine, establish, and avail myself of public and private assistance. 

At this time I haven't properly formulated ACTION plans. 

When we get back from lunch I checked email, and continued to use the various capabilities of technology to reach out and communicate with people and try to find out what the conditions were in my immediate neighborhood.  I really wanted to know if my house had survived.  At the time, though, the media was all focused on the areas of severe devastation; sensationalism sells.  While I am plugged into the media and data streams collecting information, Andrea is putting the kids down for a nap.  When they crash out, she comes in and we have a strategy session. 

I am not actively aware of it, but at this point we are performing the Assess and Communicate phases of our ACTION plan - but never having done this before, we're making it up as we go along. 

Andrea and I discuss some realities that neither one of us really wanted to face.  Being practical people, and having discussed these eventualities during some family planning sessions several years prior, we faced facts.  While some things should be obvious, there are other things that we simply didn't know how to handle.

1.  Our house (and our jobs!) are inside a disaster area (Federally Declared or Otherwise), and we do not know when we will return.

That means that we don't have permanent housing (duh!), and we do not have a regular income either (double duh!).  This course of thinking quickly leads to the idea that we can't pay bills of any kind.  The cash flow situation can best be described as Grim - between us we have something less than $1,000.  Our race on the Treadmill of the American Dream has come to a stunning halt.  Oddly enough, rather than feeling any kind of rising panic, I feel a strange kind of freedom.  I mean, what's the bank gonna do - repossess my house?  Ha!

For many people, however, that kind of thing is unsettling.  You're suddenly away from anything familiar, with no job, no money, and no home.  All you need is a drug or alcohol habit, and you're any other bum.  This is no ordinary country, though.  This is America!  This is the Land of Opportunity! 

It's also the land of Insurance, Private Charity, and Government Assistance Programs.  It is with these various entities that we must now Transact - but neither of us has any clue where to start or what we should do.  The next few hours is an education through the intricacies of Corporate Power, Government Bureaucracy, and Human Charity.  Well, Human Charity not so much.

Andrea volunteers for Mortgage Company and Insurance Company, while I tackle FEMA.  At this point I have no real idea what FEMA is, although a couple of people have said things like, "FEMA is going to come in and write us all checks!", as though FEMA is some kind of magic fairy.  The education I will receive while dealing with FEMA over the next few months will prove daunting and exasperating.  It is my hope that through this page I can spare a lot of people a lot of headache when they have to deal with FEMA.

The first thing I do, of course, is hit Google and type in FEMA, which brings up, the FEMA website.  WIKI also provides some light reading on the subject.   WIKI says:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security. The purpose of FEMA (begun by Presidential Order on April 1, 1979) is to coordinate the response to a disaster which has occurred in the United States and which overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities. The governor of the state in which the disaster occurred must declare a state of emergency and formally request from the President that FEMA and the federal government respond to the disaster. The only exception is when an emergency or disaster occurs on federal property or to a federal asset, for example, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the 1995 bombing, or the Space Shuttle Columbia in the 2003 return-flight disaster.

While on-the-ground support of disaster recovery efforts is a major part of FEMA's charter, the agency provides state and local governments with experts in specialized fields and funding for rebuilding efforts and relief funds for infrastructure, in conjunction with the Small Business Administration. FEMA also assists individuals and businesses with low interest loans. In addition to this, FEMA provides funds for training of response personnel throughout the United States and its territories as part of the agency's preparedness effort.


OK, now I know what FEMA is, but I still don't know what FEMA is supposed to do for me.  We'll get to that in a moment.  I want to skip ahead about two years and give you something other than the textbook answer because you really need to know this if you are going to deal with FEMA.

FEMA is not your friend.  FEMA is also not your particular enemy.  It is simply a government agency, and as such is a kind of clockwork that works through paperwork, information, and various departments.  Despite the official definitions, the primary job of the FEMA (and Homeland Security) is not to protect the American people in times of emergency but to protect the government in times of emergency and keep it functioning. Their primary assignment is not to help people, but to control them.  Some people will see that darkly, but FEMA isn't a bad agency - it just is what it is. 

FEMA is not just one agency.  It is a monster with many heads - many departments.  It is actually nearly impossible to discuss FEMA as a whole agency.  I will say that all of the actual human beings that I met that work for or as agents of FEMA *tried* to be 100% helpful.  Those that failed to be helpful did not fail from a lack of trying.  They usually failed from either a lack of information, a lack of knowledge, or a lack of common sense.  I never had a negative experience on my end - except for what I came to think of as FEMA Control Agents.  It's these Control Agents that go about mucking and dicking things up as much as possible - so much so that you think they are doing it on purpose.  Later on in this blog I will teach you how to deal with FEMA Control Agents, and give you a magic phrase to use that works on them every time.

The FEMA Command Structure is completely clueless at the top.  You really want to deal with people who are closest to the disaster itself.  The people in Washington are so useless that it's a wonder that they haven't been assigned to mop floors in a McDonald's - with my apologies to the hard working employees of McDonald's. 

Unless you are a government employee on some level, you will likely never deal with FEMA in all its parts - and you won't have to deal with the most bothersome parts.  Your exposure to FEMA will actually be very small - but also important in some ways.  FEMA can provide housing assistance, for instance.  FEMA can actually provide many useful and valuable kinds of help in an emergency.  The most important help that FEMA provides is not directly to individuals, but in putting civilization back together again.

When dealing with FEMA there is one thing that you should never do, and one thing that you should try to avoid.  Unless you have no other choice at all, never go to a FEMA shelter of any kind.  FEMA shelters are any other kind of Government Camp on the Government Vacation Program.  Do not go there.  I'm not talking about Red Cross shelters that may be directed by FEMA - we'll get to those later.  I am speaking specifically to places like the Superdome and any other such 'processing' area. 

The thing that you should try to avoid is calling FEMA on the telephone.  Sometimes you may have to, but it's much better to deal with them online.  If you do have to call FEMA, be very nice on the phone.  Have a conversation, not a confrontation.  The person on the other end of the phone has nothing to do with any of your frustrations, and they don't have to help you if you are nasty.  They can also cause your file to disappear - which will only set you back. 

What you need to know about FEMA in three easy steps:

1.  Get your notebook out, fire up your laptop, and log in to the Disaster Declarations Page -

Look up your declared disaster.  If you do not have a declared disaster, then you can't register.  Declared disasters do not have to be large.  If you look up ALL disasters for your state, you'll see that sometimes disasters are declared for nothing more than some severe thunder storms and a little flooding.  Find your declared disaster and write down the number and other information in your notebook.

There are two different types of disaster declarations. One is for Public Assistance (PA) and one for Individual Assistance (IA). PA permits government entities to apply for assistance. This money is dedicated to things like roads, hospitals, and other critical infrastructure. It can also help pay for expenses the cities, counties/parishes, and or state has accrued due to the disaster. It can also be used for mitigation of future disasters (turning flooded areas into greenspace). There are many other uses for PA, but that is a broad overview. The important thing to know is that a disaster with a PA only declaration does not allow for assistance to individuals.

For this you need an IA declaration. This frees up federal funds to members of the community to support their needs as a result of the disaster. PA declarations are much more frequent that IA. The decisions to provide IA is based on numerous thresholds that include things like the number of uninsured home owners, the number of destroyed homes, etc. All of these numbers are placed into a magical formula I'm yet to understand. The result determines whether the impacted area qualifies for IA.

An area can also be declared as being in a State of Emergency. This frees up federal funds and the red tape that affects certain types of mutual aid. The most common time to see a State of Emergency in our area is during an evacuation. This is often done early in the disaster to ease the evacuation and/or response.

For more info, check the links on the side navigation bar at

2.  Register with FEMA.  Go to the Apply for Assistance Page -

You will find helpful information on this page.  Look for the APPLY ONLINE link.  As an individual, you will be applying for the IHP (Individuals & Households Program).  Businesses can apply to a different program in some circumstances.  You should educate yourself about this program by going to and downloading and reading the Help After a Disaster guide.  This guide will tell you everything you need to know.

There are other assistance programs that fall under the ONA (Other Needs Assistance) Program.  These include Aging Services, Agricultural Aid, Assistance From Financial Institutions, Business Loan Program, Social Security, Tax Assistance, and Veteran's Benefits.

When you register, you will give FEMA all of your personal information, including your Social Security number, insurance information, and some other things besides.  You should also give them a bank account number, into which they will deposit funds directly for any cash assistance you may receive.  Some of you have just freaked out about that.  "I would never give the government my personal information!"  Guess what, folks...  The government already knows everything about you.  They know your Social Security number, and they know all of your bank account numbers, and they even know how much money you have in each account.  You aren't giving them anything they don't already have.  Take off your tin foil hat and register.  If you're really that paranoid, then open a new bank account and give them that one.

When you register, you will have a login, a password, and a pin number.  Make sure to write these down in your notebook.  You will be able to log into the FEMA website, update information as you need to, check the status of your assistance, and fulfill any FEMA requests that way.  It is 10,000% better than trying to do it on the phone.  Each person in your family does not need to register.  Only one person in each household.

The only problem I have with the FEMA website is that sometimes when I try to logon during peak ours, I get an error:

Internal Server Error

The server encountered an internal error or misconfiguration and was unable to complete your request.

Please contact the server administrator, and inform them of the time the error occurred, and anything you might have done that may have caused the error.

More information about this error may be available in the server error log.

Apache/2.0.43 Server at Port 443


If you see that, just keep trying.

3.  Wait. 

In a few days you will receive an information packet from FEMA.  It will include a copy of the Help After a Disaster book, some information about the other programs I listed, a copy of your registration/application for assistance, and a nice cover letter.  Keep these in your important files.  Respond to any FEMA requests for information promptly.  You will have to sign and return some documents.  Stay on top of it, and the program will run smoothly.  If you are eligible for any financial assistance, you should receive it into your bank account promptly.  If you are too paranoid to provide your bank account, then they will either mail you a check or a debit card with the amount of your assistance - but that will take longer.

I don't remember exactly when FEMA dropped $2,000 into my bank account, but it wasn't long - and it was a tremendous weight off my heart in the short term.  FEMA no longer hands out that much cash all in one chunk - but if you are living in a place that is declared a disaster, FEMA can provide some short term help to keep you afloat.  This is something that FEMA does well.  There are many things that FEMA did not do well, and we'll look at those things as they come up - but I was personally satisfied with this particular transaction with my government.  It was, in a very real way, one small step towards home.

If you do get financial assistance, do not do stupid crap with the money.  Some people wasted it, and some people committed various kinds of fraud.  When I got my money, I didn't think of it as a free check; I thought of it as a responsibility.  If you have any of it left when you finally find Home, then consider reaching down and using it to pull someone else up too.  I'll tell you everything I did with that money later on in context, but for now know that I used it well.

Depending on your circumstances, FEMA can provide various levels of assistance, temporary housing assistance, and a number of other things besides.  You can't get any of that assistance if you don't register. 

There are a number of things that FEMA will not provide.  They aren't going to write you a big fat check to fix your house.  They aren't going to give you anything personally that is going to help you climb out of the hole - but they will keep you from sinking much deeper than the initial disaster.  Whatever you do, do not wait for FEMA.  Register and keep moving forward.  There is a lot of other work to do.  Now that we're into Transactions, though, it's time to start building our ACTION plan into our workbook.  We'll accomplish that on the next page.



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