FEMA 101: Everything you should know about getting help after a hurricane

When Hurricane Irma hit the Bay Area in 2017, trees came down, roofs were crushed, and the lights went out for days. With the prospect of no air conditioning, no hot water, and no way to cook or clean, many without power got hotel rooms to get them through it.

Afterwards, many were eligible for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

To be eligible for FEMA assistance, applicants must live in a county declared as a major disaster by the president of the United States. 


The first step, regardless of the type of assistance requested, is to register with FEMA, as soon as possible. Residents can register in one of three ways:

  • Online at www.disasterassistance.gov
  • The FEMA app, available in the Apple App Store or Google Play
  • Phone, by calling 1-800-621-FEMA. Residents may also apply in person at a Disaster Recovery Center. Hours and locations for the centers are available by downloading the FEMA app.

Gather the following information and documents in order to register:

  • Social Security number
  • Address of the location where the damage occurred (pre-disaster address)
  • Current mailing address
  • Current telephone number
  • Insurance information
  • Total household annual income
  • Routing and account number for your checking or savings account (this allows FEMA to directly transfer disaster assistance funds into your bank account).
  • A description of your disaster-caused damage and losses


Temporary Housing: Homeowners and renters may be eligible for up to 18 months of rental assistance while repairs are made to their primary residence.

Hotel Reimbursement: FEMA may reimburse hotel expenses for short-term stays when the primary residence is inaccessible, or when there is a power outage.

Home Repairs: Uninsured and underinsured homeowners may be eligible for assistance to repair disaster-related damage, not covered by insurance.

Home Replacement: In some cases, money is available to replace a primary residence destroyed by a disaster, if it is not covered by insurance.

Necessary Expenses: Assistance is available to help cover child care, medical & dental, and funeral & burial expenses caused by the disaster.

Other Expenses covered by FEMA include room furnishings, appliances, and other essential household items damaged by the disaster; items needed for post-storm cleanup, such as wet/dry vacuums and dehumidifiers; moving & storage expenses while the repairs are made to the primary residence and other necessary expenses or serious needs as determined by FEMA and authorized by federal law.

Vehicle Repairs: Repairs to essential vehicles damaged by the disaster may be covered by FEMA.

FEMA updates on the declaration and eligibility for individual assistance: https://www.fema.gov/disaster/4337/updates-blog-and-news


After applying for FEMA assistance, an inspector will call to schedule an inspection to verify damage and to determine eligibility. The inspection is free and lasts about 30-40 minutes. You may receive a visit from more than one inspector throughout the process, depending on what types of assistance you request. In all cases, the FEMA housing inspector will have proper identification.

During the inspection, owners will need to show proof of ownership, such as a deed, tax records, mortgage payment book, or copy of insurance policy. Renters will need to show a lease agreement. Both owners and renters also need to show proof of occupancy such as a utility bill, driver’s license, or any first-class mail sent by the government within the previous three months.

Once the inspection is complete, FEMA will review your situation. You will receive a letter by email or U.S. Mail, which outlines the decision regarding your claim.


Those who qualify for assistance can receive funds in as little as 10 days. According to FEMA, direct deposits to checking or savings accounts are the fastest and safest way to receive funds. If your application for FEMA assistance is denied, you may file an appeal, in writing which explains why you believe the decision is incorrect. Appeals can be filed online at www.disasterassistance.gov.


In addition to FEMA assistance, there are several other government programs available to Floridians impacted by Hurricane Irma.

FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers have been opened to help residents who would like to discuss their hurricane-related case in person. More information can be found at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call the FEMA Helpline at 800-621- 3362.

Some of the services available at a DRC include:

  • Guidance regarding disaster recovery
  • Clarification of any written correspondence received
  • Housing Assistance and Rental Resource information
  • Answers to questions, resolution to problems and referrals to agencies that may provide further assistance
  • Status of applications being processed by FEMA

SBA program information will be available if there is an SBA Representative at the Disaster Recovery Center site. Those services include:

Operation Blue Roof is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers program, which provides temporary covering on damaged roofs to prevent further damage to the property until repairs can be made. Corps contractors install the blue tarps for free. The homeowner or landlord must sign a "Right of Entry" form allowing the contractors access to the property. Call 1-888-ROOF-BLU (1-888-766-3258) or visit the "Operation Blue Roof" website at http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/BlueRoof/

"Food for Florida" is a disaster-assistance program administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It becomes available to Floridians once the president declares the state a federal disaster area. To qualify, recipients must have at least one disaster-related expense to their home or business or have expenses related to temporary shelter or evacuation, income loss caused by the disaster, or food loss caused by the disaster. Eligibility is based, in part on income. People already receiving food assistance are not eligible for this program but will be receiving added benefits on their EBT cards. More information about Food for Florida visit http://www.dcf.state.fl.us/programs/access/fff/

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Disaster Unemployment Assistance program provides temporary benefits to those whose employment is lost or interrupted by the disaster. Claims must be filed within 30 days of the Presidential Disaster Declaration. To apply online, visit https://connect.myflorida.com/Claimant/Core/Login.ASPX