Houston Homeowners Face Another Daunting Task: Navigating The FEMA Aid Process

As the waters begin to recede in Southeast Texas, those affected by hurricane Harvey have more challenges ahead. One of those daunting tasks includes applying for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As soon as the floodwaters receded in East Houston, the Hernandez family got to work.

“We’re just right here trying to clean out the backyard and get any trash and get the water flowing out of the yard so we can at least be dry back here. And then we’ll worry about the inside I suppose,” said Geri-Ann Hernandez.

Inside her home, there’s evidence of the scramble to get things above the rising water. One prize that made it with little damage: her daughter’s quinceañera dress – all bright pink tulle and gold sequins

“She waited forever for that quinceañera,” Hernandez said. “This is something that she loves and it means a lot to her – so I had to get it out here to dry so it wouldn’t get moldy on her.”

The waters inside were nearly waist deep, which means most of the Hernandez’s furniture is saturated with stinking floodwater. The carpet will have to go, and the drywall is waterlogged.

Feeling stuck after the flood

Hernandez applied for FEMA assistance right away, but now she feels stuck.

“We really don’t know right now what to do as far as our belongings or as far as cleaning up our home,” she said. “We don’t know if we should leave our stuff here the way it is and let them see it, or if we should try to just clean it out and help the process run more smoother, I guess, and get as far along in our steps as we can.”

Santiago Hernandez Jr. watches as his grandmother Griselda Blanca washes clothe salvaged from her flooded home. Hurricane Harvey brought record floods to the Houston Area.
CREDIT JORGE SANHUEZA-LYON / KUT NEWS

“If the family is able to start cleaning the house, they can start to do it. What we suggest is they take photos of all the damage, take photos before you start cleaning,” said Carmen Rodriguez, a FEMA spokeswoman.

FEMA oversees the national flood insurance program, and Rodriguez said in some cases, inspectors won’t need to come in person to process a claim – like if they know a whole neighborhood flooded.

“Sometimes, the person registers for assistance, but we already know when they tell us the address where the house is located that the house was completely flooded,” Rodriguez said.

Many in Houston without flood insurance

Here’s the thing, though: four out of five people in Harris County don’t have flood insurance – people like Geri-Ann Hernandez. She had flood insurance for years, but ultimately cancelled it because she had never needed it. Plus, it’s really expensive.

The Martinez family prepares to evacuate their Lakewood home in N. East Houston. Hurricane Harvey brought record floods to the Houston Area.Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT NewsEdit | Remove

Her neighbor Christy Garcia skipped it altogether when she moved in a decade ago.

“When we purchased our house, we asked about it, but they told us we weren’t in a flood zone so we didn’t get it,” Garcia said.

Most home insurance doesn’t cover flood damage. With more than 150,000 homes damaged, a lot of folks will be left in the lurch, said Bob Hunter from the Consumer Federation of America. He said FEMA does offer some options – just not much.

“You may be able to get some grant money to get back into the house – a few thousand dollars at most,” said Hunter. “That is usually available without strings, depending on how Congress sets this up.”

Beyond that, he said FEMA aid for homeowners comes mostly in the form of low-interest loans, not grants. That means they have to get paid back.

“For people who have good jobs and money in the bank, that’s feasible. But for people who are low-income, it may not be feasible for them to put another loan on top of what they’re already paying for their regular mortgage,” he said. “In fact, if you look at the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, quite a few people walked away from their home and now they’re just lots.”

Bottom line: apply for help as quickly as possible and keep detailed notes of every interaction.

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