This is a guest post by AmeriCorps Disaster Legal Fellow Joaquin Johnson, of CrescentCare Legal Services in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
As an AmeriCorps Fellow, I provide direct legal assistance to persons in the greater Baton Rouge community who were impacted by the Louisiana Severe Storms and Flooding of 2016. For a variety of socioeconomic reasons, the clients I serve are often low to moderate income individuals who are unrepresented and underserved in recovery efforts. Legal aid is crucial in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma—based on my experience, here’s what affected communities should know.
What should one do in the days, weeks, and months following a disaster?
- Contact your insurance company: After the storm has subsided, the water has receded, and the government provides the clearance to return home, it is important to have a plan for dealing with the damages caused by a disaster. Begin the claim process by contacting your insurance company and reviewing your policy. To help determine the type of coverage you have, take photographs and gather supporting evidence of the damage.
- Check for benefits: If there is a federal declaration, for those who are uninsured or underinsured, you should apply for assistance from the Small Business Administration (SBA) Disaster Loans program and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). This can be done online, by phone, or onsite at disaster recovery centers located throughout the impacted community. You should also apply for Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) benefits and Disaster Unemployment Assistance, if available. Check with state and local agencies for application information.
- Assess the damage: Next, start a more detailed assessment of damage to your property and the losses you suffered. Log the damage by taking photographs, making a list of damaged items, and examining the entire area of your property. Be sure to gather copies of your important documents such as identification cards, drivers’ licenses, social security cards, birth certificates, and proof of ownership of your home or car.
- Gather information: While some programs, like the Red Cross, may not require in-depth information to receive assistance, programs offered by state and local governments, such as D-SNAP, require documentation to receive benefits. Waiting in long lines to complete an application for services can be stressful. Having the required documentation when applying will make for a smoother process. If your important documents were lost in the disaster, local agencies often establish programs for replacement. Check with local offices or contact legal aid organizations in the community for assistance.
- Prepare to rebuild: Depending on the scale of the disaster and your loss, the next phase of recovery is the rebuilding and restoration process. In the early stages, your insurance company or FEMA will send adjusters to determine the damage to your property. Do not start any repairs until after documenting your damages and seeing the adjuster. If you start your repairs before receiving funds, please keep all your receipts and document the repairs made to your property. Be sure you take before and after photographs and if you use a contractor, select those who are licensed and bonded, and willing to sign documents to support your claims.
Are there specific resources a survivor can and should utilize?
Early intervention programs such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army are often available to provide immediate disaster relief. Survivors should find an open library in order to access information about state and local government programs. Libraries are excellent, credible sources of accurate information. Survivors should search the bulletin boards and talk to the librarian to find out events dedicated to disaster relief. Faith-based organizations are also reliable resources for disaster relief assistance, but they may have their own requirements to receive assistance.
As one starts to rebuild, what should he or she know?
- Protect your assets: Be vigilant when looking for contractors when you start the rebuilding process. It is important to vet contractors and make sure you hire a licensed and bonded contractor to complete your repairs. The state government should have a website that consumers can use to determine if a contractor is licensed. Survivors should be on alert for imposters posing as IRS or FEMA agents.
- Protect yourself: Rebuilding is a difficult process, and maintaining good health and mental stability should be top priority. Standing water causes harmful mold and mildew, so be sure to wear protective covering and a mask when cleaning out your property. Drink bottled water when available. The damage caused by a disaster can often cause feelings of grief—seek support groups or counseling to discuss any feelings, positive or negative, as a result of your lost.