In Harvey's Wake

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Hey, Texplainer: What assistance is available to those affected by Harvey and what can I do if I get denied federal aid?

Johnny Brown applied for federal assistance after Harvey hit through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. On Wednesday morning, he received free housing assistance through its Transitional Shelter Assistance program.

The only problem, Brown said? Too many people are applying for housing vouchers and there’s not enough space for all the evacuees. This left Brown and his girlfriend — who lost their home in the Scarsdale neighborhood of Houston during the Harvey floods — to find temporary shelter at a local Motel 6.

“The motel is right next door to a strip club. You have a lot of workers and criminal activity going on here and a lot of drug dealing in the parking lot, so it’s not a safe area,” Brown said. “I’ve been trying to go to another hotel that accepts FEMA vouchers, but the ones I find are extremely far and on the outskirts of Houston.”

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“It’s been a lot to take in under the circumstances we’re going through. Money is limited so it’s been kind of hard,” he added, noting that his car was also destroyed in the flood so he has no way to get to other available hotels.

Following the devastation of Harvey, several folks sought resources from some of the federal aid made available to evacuees. The largest federal resource available — which offers housing assistance, rental assistance and grants — is FEMA. But everyone isn’t guaranteed a cut.

As of Tuesday evening, more than 600,000 people have applied for federal assistance under FEMA, but only 182,503 have been approved, said Deanna Frazier, a spokeswoman for the government agency. Frazier told The Texas Tribune she expects that number to increase as the organization continues its recovery efforts.

FEMA warns applicants to avoid common missteps that will lead to an application being rejected including:

  • providing inaccurate information on their application
  • failing to provide, when applicable, an insurance letter that states whether or not they carried flood insurance
  • not being from one of the counties in Gov. Greg Abbott's disaster declaration for Harvey 
  • asking for housing assistance for a destroyed secondary home (such as a rental home or vacation house)
  • not being able to provide proof of ownership to their home 

Getting denied by FEMA isn’t the end of the road, however. Those who don’t qualify for their assistance can apply for loans with terms of up to 30 years with the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The SBA has approved 388 home disaster loans as of Tuesday evening — an amount equal to roughly $35 million.

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Homeowners eligible for the loans will pay an interest rate of 1.75 percent, according to Kevin Wynne, a spokesman with SBA’s office of disaster assistance. When an evacuee applies for a disaster loan, Wynne added, the SBA only factors in a person’s credit history and repayment ability before deciding eligibility. 

We encourage everyone to apply,” Wynne said. “It’s a good way to get to where you were before the setback.”

However, some Texans, like Brown, say they’re wary of accepting federal loans after losing everything in the floods.

“They’re trying to loan us money and I’m one of the Americans that live from paycheck to paycheck,” Brown said. “I don’t have room for any extra bills.”

People denied by SBA are often kicked back to FEMA, Frazier said, to see if there’s another program that can help them out. FEMA offers an Other Needs Assistance program for people that have been denied loans. That includes a critical needs assistance plan for some of the more dire cases. 

“The critical needs assistance plan is under ONA and for that we give a $500 initial grant for critical needs such as food, water and diapers,” Frazier said. People only qualify for the grant, however, if FEMA determines an evacuee's home is both inaccessible and uninhabitable.

But $500 isn’t enough to help those who lost everything in the floods, Brown said.

“My company is down right now because of the storm,” he said. “They said it’s going to be like this for a couple weeks, so I’ve been weeks without income. $500 isn’t going to cover that.”

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For those denied by both FEMA and the SBA, “volunteer agencies would likely be the next best step,” Wynne said. Several nonprofit groups say they’re helping those displaced by Harvey get the lodging, food and money they need to get back on their feet.

"With an event of this magnitude we’re kind of reinventing as we go," said Damian Morales, disaster services program manager for the OneStar Foundation. He added that groups such as his are working "proactively between government and nonprofits and thinking creatively on how to best meet the needs of these communities.”

Several nonprofits and community groups are offering aid to those displaced by Harvey — even to those who have also qualified for federal assistance:

  • Survivors, including evacuees, in need of debris removal and home cleanup assistance as a result of Hurricane Harvey should call Crisis Cleanup at 844-965-1386 for free assistance from vetted disaster relief organizations.

  • For all other disaster-related needs (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) residents should call 2-1-1.

  • Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is an association of organizations that helps coordinate groups offering help after a disaster. A list of National VOAD members who are providing assistance to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey can be found at https://www.nvoad.org/voad-members/national-members/.

  • A list of Texas-based VOAD members who are providing assistance to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey is available at https://txvoad.communityos.org/cms/node/104.

The bottom line: FEMA is offering federal aid to people displaced by Harvey, but not everyone qualifies for their assistance programs. For those who don’t qualify, the U.S. Small Business Administration is encouraging people to apply for loans. Various nonprofits and community groups are also offering different types of assistance.

To see a more complete list of where to get and offer aid post-Harvey, check out our resource guide here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, an exploding chemical plant highlights how little the public knows about potential dangers from the oil and chemical industries. Critics say one reason for the darkness: tons of campaign money. [Full story]

  • A year before Harvey, a Houston-area flood control chief told the Texas Tribune that he strongly disagreed with scientists and experts who argued that development around Houston would make flooding worse. [Full story]

  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has chosen John Sharp, chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former Democratic elected official, to lead the rebuilding effort in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. [Full story]

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