What is FEMA?

Local tornado victims slow to get FEMA aid approval

Letters might look like denials, but many are seeking more information from applicants.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved a far lower percentage of grants to Memorial Day tornado survivors in Ohio at this point in the sign-up process than during the aftermath of other disasters, a FEMA official said Monday.

Just 29% of grant applications have been approved, said Liz Gibson, FEMA’s voluntary agency liaison group supervisor. Historically, 50% or more of the individuals or households that had applied for assistance this far into a federal disaster declaration had been approved for grants, she said.

MORE: Busing issues, building repairs plague school districts after tornadoes

Most applicants haven’t provided FEMA with requested insurance paperwork, she said. A number of registrants haven’t proved they own or lived in a dwelling, others are misreading FEMA letters or they can’t be located by the agency, she added.

“A lot of that is we are not getting folks’ insurance settlements,” Gibson said. “They just haven’t sent it in to us yet.”

President Donald Trump issued a Presidential Disaster Declaration on June 18, opening up federal assistance for individuals and businesses. As of Monday, FEMA had received 5,670 registrations. The deadline for applying looms Aug. 19.

Many survivors are likely still negotiating an insurance settlement, said Gibson, an 18-year FEMA employee and section chief based in Washington, D.C.

“It takes time to process, and then folks smartly don’t settle for the first number from their insurance company,” she said.

Gibson provided the federal agency’s numbers Monday at a meeting of the Miami Valley Long-Term Recovery Operations Group. The coalition of local nonprofit and other organizations plans a two-year effort to coordinate and direct volunteer labor and donations to survivors both short on insurance and and government assistance.

MORE: Website to coordinate tornado victim info and how to donate, volunteer

Survivors need to carefully read FEMA letters all the way to the bottom, said Cherish Cronmiller, president and CEO of Miami Valley Community Action Partnership and a member of the operations group.

“You really have to drill down with those individuals and ask them why they were potentially ineligible,” Cronmiller said. “Did they read to the end of their letter? What additional information is FEMA asking for?”

FEMA’s determination letters can be confusing, leading some people to believe they can’t get help, Gibson said.

“Our letter is difficult. I will tell you that right up front,” Gibson said. “When they first read it, it sounds like they have been denied assistance. But they have not. Instead of telling them what they needed at the top of the letter, they said it at the bottom of the letter.”

Altogether, FEMA expected about 6,400 applications after a record 21 tornadoes touched down in Ohio during the evening of May 27 and early the next morning, Gibson said. About $3.8 million has been approved in individual assistance grants so far.

A preliminary damage assessment shows more than 2,200 structures in Montgomery County were made uninhabitable by multiple tornadoes, including a destructive EF4 twister that tore a broad swath from Brookville to Riverside.

To a lesser degree, another factor contributing to the low FEMA approval rate is the inability of applicants to immediately show FEMA inspectors that they own or lived in a damaged property, which can be done by presenting tax paperwork, utility bills or credit card statements.

“Oftentimes people aren’t prepared to do that, even though we try to tell them that when the inspector calls to make an appointment,” she said.

MORE: Tornado-damaged motel on I-75 plans repairs, neighbors want it closed

Another challenge facing FEMA is that a majority of those affected by the tornadoes were renters who may have now moved multiple times following the storm, Gibson said.

Additionally, a majority of people in this disaster were renters who were uprooted and are accustomed to moving on, she said.

“They are accustomed to moving on. They uproot and they go,” she said. “We don’t know that unless you tell us.”

Gibson said a group of 15 FEMA workers on Monday starting phoning applicants who have not responded to paperwork requests.

“We are doing a massive outreach, calling every person that’s stuck in this issue,” she said.

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