At FEMA office, federal workers say they’re here to help
EAGLE RIVER, Alaska (AP) — At a small office in an Eagle River church, nearly a dozen federal employees are working to both mitigate problems and manage expectations of those seeking help after the Nov. 30, 2018 earthquake.
They’re the government, and they’re here to help.
“We’re here as long as we’re needed,” said Jack Heesch, an external affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Heesch two other federal employees sat down for an interview Friday at Community Covenant Church, where employees from across the country are working to guide people through the often complicated and sometimes frustrating process of applying for federal disaster assistance. Center manager Miriam Zayas said the purpose of the center is to provide people with face-to-face answers about how they can receive help.
“We make sure they leave here and they really understand everything,” Zayas said. “Sometimes they are overwhelmed because it’s a lot of information.”
FEMA operates four disaster recovery centers in the area, with two in Anchorage and another in Wasilla. Each of the centers has been seeing about 30-35 people each day, with more than 436 visiting the Eagle River center since it opened in mid February.
The first step in the federal aid process is to apply, Zayas said. That can be done either online at disasterassistance.gov or in person. Applicants who apply in person should make sure they have their Social Security number, address, a description of damages, insurance information, a phone number, a bank account and routing number and an address where they can receive mail.
Once someone has applied, they need to have an inspection done showing any damage to the home and a contractor’s estimate of what repairs are needed. After that, FEMA claims workers will review the claim and make a determination on how much money someone will receive. If someone has homeowner’s insurance, the claim may be initially denied until the homeowner shows they don’t have an earthquake rider on their policy, Zayas said.
Managing people’s expectations about how much money they’ll receive is one of the workers’ biggest challenges. Although the maximum amount of federal grant aid a homeowner can receive is $34,900, Heesch said it’s “rare” for anyone to receive the full amount.
“You have to lose the whole house,” he said. “And the problem we find is when that word gets out, that $34,900, it sets a really false expectation.”
Heesch said in recent disasters such as hurricanes, the average grant ended up being about $5,000. As of last Friday, Heesch said the agency had so far dispersed about $3.4 million to 1,377 Alaskans since a federal disaster was declared at the end of January — an average of about $2,500 to each recipient.
The reason for the disparity, Heesch said, is that FEMA is only going to provide enough aid to return people to “a safe, secure, sanitary, habitable dwelling.”
“A safe house is one where the doors and windows lock. A sanitary house is one that has running water. A habitable house is one in which you can live safely and securely,” he said.
That means FEMA may be able to provide money for temporary housing or a new refrigerator, but the government may not pay for home repairs that aren’t deemed critical to safety and habitability. People who are unhappy with the amount of federal aid they receive can file an appeal within 60 days.
“You will have to include contractor’s estimate that specifies that those damages were caused by the disaster, with a letter stating why you need more help,” Zayas said.
There are also state grants available, though the deadline to apply for those has already passed.
For folks who need more assistance than the state or FEMA can provide with grants, there are other options. The U.S. Small Business Administration has employees in Eagle River to help people apply for low-cost federal loans. Loans are available for up to homeowners for up to $200,000 for home repairs plus $40,000 for personal property (for which renters are also eligible). SBA public information officer Bill Koontz said it’s free to apply for the 2 percent loans, there is no obligation and loans can be paid back over 30 years.
“This whole arrangement is geared so that people get immediate help from FEMA — cash in their hands for what they absolutely need — but long-term help is going to be in the form of a loan,” Koontz said. “And by the government doing it that way that money that SBA loans out comes back into the government’s hands and is loaned out in other disasters, which allows there to be more disaster assistance throughout the country.”
Staff at the disaster recovery center will also provide people with information about how to mitigate existing and future damage as well as other resources available for those in need — everything from food pantries to mental health counseling.
Although the government can’t return life to normal for people, Zayas said the job of guiding them through the process is rewarding.
“Oh yes, I love it,” said the Puerto Rico native, who said she’s worked in disaster recovery centers everywhere from Coney Island to the Louisiana bayou.
Heesch said the workers at the disaster recovery center know they can’t solve every problem for people, but they will provide a human voice to answer questions.
“Their mentality, their demeanor is that of somebody who is a social worker,” he said. “Because that’s their job is to help people recover. And they’re trying to find ways to make that happen.”
However, Zayas said she’s ready for spring.
“It’s too cold!”
The disaster recovery center at Community Covenant Church (16123 Artillery Road) is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The SBA also has an office set up in the Eagle River Town Center building to aid business owners impacted by the quake. The SBA office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.