FEMA Funding 101 Navigating Rough Seas of Federal Disaster Assistance

FEMA Funding 101

 When Superstorm Sandy hit the New England states last fall, the U.S. Department  of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was quick to offer federal disaster  assistance to the states affected to supplement the local recovery efforts that  arose in the storm’s wake.  

 For example, in the aftermath of Sandy, 12,380 Connecticut residents filed  claims with FEMA and over $50 million in aid was approved for disaster relief.  In Massachusetts, six counties in the Commonwealth were eligible for federal  aid and several counties in Rhode Island also applied for disaster assistance  as well. In January, FEMA officials said $6 million had been paid on 1,020  claims made in Rhode Island; it was unclear how many more claims remained to be  processed or how much more disaster relief was being sought in the state.  

 But hurricanes aren’t the only disaster that FEMA funds can help. Tornadoes, floods and even  hailstorms can cause enough damage that brings the federal funding into play.  

 The state of Maine was recently awarded funds by FEMA to supplement state,  tribal and local recovery efforts in the area affected by a severe winter  storm, snowstorm, and flooding of February 8 to 9. Similarly, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire were all  designated as disaster areas for the same storm and some federal funding was  also available for emergency work.  

 Daniel T. Vindigni, assistant town manager and director of emergency management  for the town of Enfield, Connecticut, explains that disaster assistance is  financial or direct assistance to individuals and families whose property has  been damaged or destroyed as a result of a federally-declared disaster, and  whose losses are not covered by insurance. It is meant to help you with  critical expenses that cannot be covered in other ways.  

 For those who live in condos or homeowner associations, in most cases the types  of assistance that FEMA could provide are not necessarily related to costs  associated with repairing damages to infrastructure. The program more than  likely only applies to individual condo owners and making repairs to the  insides of their own units.  

 According to Scott MacLeod, disaster recovery manager for the Massachusetts  Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), FEMA has a number of different disaster  assistance programs it can turn on if certain thresholds are met.  

 “Part of FEMA’s role in that process is to work with local communities as well as impacted  residents and businesses to evaluate immediately following a disaster event  whether or not those thresholds have the potential to be exceeded to ask FEMA  to declare what is called a Major Disaster Declaration,” MacLeod says. “What that means is the President acknowledges and recognizes the ability for the  state and the local communities, and in some cases residents and businesses to  recover from that event are beyond the capabilities of the states and locals  and the FEMA programs can help supplement in the recovery efforts.”  

 One of those disaster assistance programs that may be turned on is what FEMA  calls its Individual Assistance Program (IA), geared towards impacted  residential structures like condos that may have been impacted by the event.  

 “That event could be a flood, tornado or any type of natural hazard,” he says. “With FEMA’s Individual Assistance program, it is not intended to make homeowners whole. It’s not geared towards completely rebuilding a structure that may have been  destroyed or completely damaged during the event, it is geared towards meeting  the basic needs of those who are impacted.”  

 The idea of the funds is to ensure the home or business is safe, sanitary and  livable. Therefore, FEMA’s grant programs are really limited to replacing hot water heaters, replacing a  washer and dryer if flooded and those sorts of things.  

 Insurance Issues

 In a lot of cases, the first questions FEMA will ask before releasing help  through its individual assistance program deal with insurance.  

 “The message we try to push is insurance; both homeowners’ insurance and national flood insurance,” MacLeod says. “This is what most folks need to be focused on. They need to make sure they have  adequate insurance coverage before an event happens.”  

 Bill Jackson, business development manager at J.P. Maguire Associates in  Waterbury, Connecticut, which handles disaster restoration for fire and water  damage, has worked on a number of condos and HOAs that have experienced natural  disasters.  

 But his company doesn’t work with funds from FEMA; it relies on condos having the proper insurance to  cover the repair costs.  

 “We’re working on a condo right now in Milford that was damaged by flooding due to  some of the recent storms in the area,” Jackson says. “We do mitigation work on property damage caused by tornadoes, heavy wind, trees  falling down. FEMA doesn’t cover things like this in most places so you need to have insurance and call  in a company like ours.”  

 Help is Out There

 One other federal disaster assistance program that may be available for condo  owners and homeowner associations may come in the form of low-interest loans  from the Small Business Administration (SBA). This can work hand-in-hand with  FEMA’s individual assistance program to cover what’s not protected under insurance.  

 Many people believe that the SBA only helps businesses, but in fact, it has a  number of programs for individual homeowners, condo residents and condo  associations, and that includes impact from natural disasters as well.  

 While FEMA’s help comes in the form of a grant, meaning there is no requirement to be paid  back, a SBA loan will need to be repaid.  

 “They are very low, over an extended period of time, so they are much lower than  what you would get at a bank or other potential sources,” MacLeod says. “In a lot of cases, their programs can be utilized for homeowners to replace  content that may have been damaged and also making improvements to structures  that may have been damaged.”  

 Physical Presence

 Aside from giving individuals money, FEMA does enact larger programs depending  onn what the situation calls for.  

 “Depending on the scope and the magnitude of the disaster, it will determine what  programs and services FEMA can provide,” MacLeod says. “In a lot of cases, FEMA may also be able to supply supplemental housing  assistance that can come in the form of rental assistance, helping to find a  temporary place to live. It might be more cost effective to bring in trailers  rather than finding adequate housing, especially if so many people are impacted  by a natural hazard event.”  

 When Disaster Hits

 At the state level, in Massachusetts, for example, the role of MEMA is to  coordinate with FEMA when something happens. Some recent events where FEMA was  contacted include the blizzard from early February and of course, coastal storm  Sandy.  

 “Our role is to coordinate with local officials, who in turn will coordinate with  local residents to help us get preliminary estimates of damages,” MacLeod says. “That will capture both damages to public infrastructure (roads, bridges,  buildings), as well as impact to residences and businesses, like a condo  building that was flooded.”  

 Once the information from all the communities is gathered, it’s evaluated against the thresholds for the federal disaster programs, and a  decision is made on whether to bring in FEMA for more assessment, evaluation  and quantification of the damage. The governor will make the final call on  whether it is warranted.  

 It is not a fast process in some cases. For the February blizzard, it took four  weeks and it could be as much as a few months before the states know whether or  not FEMA will be able to provide disaster assistance.  

 According to a representative at FEMA, any resident of a condo or homeowner  association who has a lot of damage and believes they need disaster assistance  should apply online at, via a smartphone at  or by phone at 800-621-3362.  

 Financial assistance may also be available to homeowners to repair damage or to  replace a home destroyed in a disaster that is not covered by insurance.  

 Be Prepared

 Individuals should never reach out to FEMA directly and should have a plan in  place in case something does happen.  

 If disaster does hit, people should stay informed and monitor the local media  and stay in contact with the local public officials for instructions on  assistance available and how to register.  

 FEMA’s website,, outlines core concepts to consider when preparing for  the worst-case scenarios.   

 Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England  Condominium.  


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