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Ready for a Disaster?
The Savvy Consumer

By Teresa McUsic,
THE SAVVY CONSUMER

Once you have registered with FEMA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends you take this next four steps:

Contact your insurance company. If the storm damaged your home, car, or property and you have insurance, start the claims process by calling your insurance company. Verify if you have flood or storm damage. If you don’t have a copy of your insurance policy, ask for an electronic copy of your policy. If possible, take photos and videos of your damaged property. Documenting damage will help you with your insurance claim.

Contact your mortgage servicer.
 Talk to your mortgage lender right away and tell them about your situation. Damage to your home does not eliminate your responsibility to pay your mortgage, however your lender may be willing to work with you. If you don’t have your lender’s contact information, you can search the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS)  or call toll-free at (888) 679-6377 to find the company that services your mortgage.

Contact your credit card companies and other lenders.
 If you don’t think you will be able to pay your credit cards or other loans, contact your lenders as soon as possible. Ask your creditor to work with you. Explain your situation and when you think you might be able to resume normal payments. Do this before your next payments are due. 

Contact your utility companies. If your home is damaged to the point you can’t live in it, ask the utility companies to suspend your service. This could help free up money in your budget for other expenses.

After two weeks of hurricane disasters, it might be time for all of us to understand a little more about some of the steps to take if your home is affected by a natural disaster.

Thirty-nine counties in Texas have been declared major disaster areas by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) following Hurricane Harvey. So far, more than 200,000 individual assistance applications have been approved for $284 million in individual and household aid and $151 million in public assistance grants, according to FEMA.

That is just the tip of the iceberg, however, for what Harvey victims will need to recover financially.

Homeowners and renters have 60 days from the declaration date of the federal disaster to register, according to Tiana Suber, a FEMA public information officer. You can register using the website DisasterAssistance.gov, calling 800-621-3362, or downloading the FEMA app for smartphones at fema.gov/mobile-app.

FEMA has several assistance programs. If you can’t return to your home, you may qualify for one month of rental assistance. You also may qualify for a one-time payment under FEMA’s Critical Needs Assistance program to pay for food, prescriptions and gasoline. FEMA’s grants program covers specific needs like childcare or medical expenses caused by the disaster. FEMA’s Other Needs Assistance program covers personal property, vehicle repair or replacement and moving and storage expenses.

Also, the Small Business Administration also offers low-interest, long-term disaster loans to homeowners, renters and businesses. 

Survivors should register with FEMA even if they have insurance. FEMA won’t duplicate insurance payments, but if you are underinsured, you may receive help after your claims have been settled.

Documentation is critical for processing both for filing with your insurance company and for asking for assistance from government agencies like FEMA and the SBA. So if you are high and dry, now is a good time to put all of these documents in electronic form and store them where you can access them

The documentation FEMA needs to prove property ownership includes:

  1. Deed or official record
  2. Title number
  3. Mortgage payment documents
  4. Property insurance
  5. Tax receipts or a property tax bill.
  6. Driver’s license

Renters need:

  1. Utility bill
  2. Credit card bills, delivery notices
  3. Other mail that is addressed to you
  4. Driver’s license

FEMA also asks for Social Security numbers of all household members, current mailing address and telephone number and routing and account number for checking or savings account to allow for direct transfer of disaster assistance funds into your bank account.

If your documents has been damaged or lost by the floods, Suber advises that contact your insurance company. County and state offices, creditors and the department of motor vehicles also may have your information on file.

“If possible, I would advise residents to keep electronic copies of all of their documentation,” Suber said. “All of those I have listed should be able to send you an electronic copy of these official documents. Save them to your email so that you can get to them anywhere you are.”

Some web services like Mint or Quickbooks also keep track of expenses and documents after you input them into the system.

To retrieve IRS records, you can file IRS Form 4506, a request for copy of your tax return for the previous four years.

Bottom line: Know that there are programs in place to help during natural disasters, and get prepared now for a smoother process if you have to take advantage of them.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net