This will probably be the longest post I write about this whole ordeal so I’m splitting it into two parts. Yes, I’m parting the parts. There’s so much shit that goes into getting your ducks in a row before you even begin to start tearing out your walls. It was confusing and overwhelming. Not even 24 hours after we’d been plucked from our flooded house by boat we were digging through more information than our minds could handle. We hadn’t even come to grips with the fact that we’d just left our home to be consumed by water – when we had to begin the circus act of getting help.
And what a circus act it is. Actually it’s more of an unorganized clusterfuck of flaming hoops swinging back and forth – and you’ve got to jump through them, but your leg is in a cast and you’re on crutches.
Hopefully this can help to serve as a bit of a primer for y’all.
Let’s start with the basics. If you live in a 100-year flood plain you are usually required to carry flood insurance. If you’re in a 500-year flood plain I believe it’s optional depending on your situation. Insurance is available to anyone, though. Our home is not in a flood plain, so we did not carry flood insurance even though we could have if we wanted. This would (should?) have been disclosed to us when we were signing the bank documents to secure the loan, and/or when we went to State Farm to get our homeowners insurance. Neither my wife or I can recall if it was brought up. I’d estimate roughly 40% of our neighborhood had flood insurance – some from experience, others were just prudent.
The great thing about being insured is you’re covered usually up to around $250,000 or so – depending on damages. That amount is split between personal items and home construction. Depending on how much water you took on, $250,000 should cover you just fine – assuming you even qualify for the max payout. You can always appeal the decision and have another inspection as well should it come to that.
The bad thing about being insured is the insurance companies and NFIP are notorious for taking an exceedingly long time to conduct inspections and settle your claim (read: give you the monies). By the time we were already starting to build back months later some of our neighbors with flood insurance were still waiting to hear back. Many ended up appealing the insurance’s low-ball settlement as well.
In the end, having insurance at least guarantees you a pretty decent chunk of money. It may not be enough to replace your collection of X or get brand new marble floors – but it’s supposed to either. Because we were uninsured our only options for assistance were FEMA and the SBA.
We now have flood insurance. – though we are still not in a flood plain. This allowed us to get it for the cheapest possible price – $450/yr. The flood maps may be redrawn at some point and put us in a flood plain. Had that been the case our yearly premium would have been well over $1000. But now we are grandfathered in. I should also note obtaining flood insurance was a requisite for receiving an SBA loan for assistance (I’ll get into that later as well).
Important Note: If you have flood insurance you cannot apply for FEMA federal aid. Well, you can, you’ll just be denied because it’s double dipping. If they do by any chance grant you FEMA money you’ll have to pay it back once your flood insurance payment is disbursed.
So, the first thing you should do once your feet are on dry ground and you’ve got your wits about you is call your insurance company to get the ball rolling. Those in the neighborhood with insurance were still waiting for payouts, and some even for inspectors, or re-inspections, for months after we had already received FEMA aid and could start doing stuff. In the end you’ll probably be made a little more whole again but you’ll probably wait a little longer to get started and to get all your money.
FEMA AID & FEDERAL GRANT MONEY
The day after we evacuated I was already on the phone with FEMA and the FEMA website registering us for federal disaster aid. My first piece of advice is: DO NOT WAIT to start this process —- because it is quite a process.
Side note: WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING. Registration numbers. Logins. Passwords. Phone numbers. EVERYTHING. You will need all of this stuff for all the websites and people you talk to. Take notes on EVERYTHING. When you talk to FEMA on the phone, write down whatever directions they say. Write down any people or numbers. Write down dollar amounts or quotes. Everything. This applies to everyone you talk to and any service you register with for the entire duration of the process of rebuilding. Remember, this is the federal government and they are terrible at everything they do.
Shortly after registering with FEMA for federal aid for Harvey, we were contacted by our case worker and they scheduled an inspection date for the house. Many of our neighbors had already had their inspections and said it was pretty simple: the inspector would come in, look around, take some pics, ask a few questions, notate stuff on their tablet, and peace out. Some even mentioned their inspector told them how much money they would probably get. Our guy wasn’t very talkative. He asked about what rooms were upstairs, what we were able to save, what we lost, etc. I didn’t get the best vibe after it was over. But all we could do was wait for the outcome.
The maximum amount of aid you can receive from FEMA is $33,000. The money is split into different categories such as ‘house repairs,’ ‘rental assistance,’ and ‘reimbursement.’ House repairs covers what they think you need to make the house safe and livable again. Rental Assistance helps pay for temporary housing while your house is repaired. The catch with that is they’ll give you what they think two months rent is (hint: it’s not), and then if you want more you have to reapply. But you can still only receive up to $33,000 so if you can swing rent on your own, just do that. For the 3rd category, they gave us some money back for the dehumidifiers we bought to help clean the house.
FEMA only gave us a little over $18,000. That’s it. $16,000 of that was for repairs, $2,000 for rental assistance since we had to rent an apartment, and about $300 to reimburse us for the dehumidifiers. Most of our neighbors received close to the maximum. So we didn’t understand why (like always) we got the shaft. Our house had exactly the same amount of water in it as theirs. We also lost everything on the first floor. But we basically received half of everyone else.
There is an appeal process, of course. In your account page on the FEMA website, where all the details and correspondence is kept, you can click a button to indicate you want to appeal a decision. Then you have to write a letter, submit evidence, and have your letter notarized. You can then either upload it to the website (what we did), or risk mailing it to FEMA and pray that it gets where it’s supposed to go. They tell you it could ‘take up to 90 days to get a response’ – and what they actually mean is ‘we’ll not do anything for 90 days, then on day 91 we’ll look at your letter, call you, and set up another inspection if your letter lends any credible information.’
So, we had another inspection. This guy was way more personable, and felt bad about how we were shafted before. He went through everything thoroughly, and told us we’d hear soon. Four days later, FEMA gave us another $6,500, bringing the total amount for house repairs to about $22,500. Still well short of the maximum and what our neighbors received. Let me tell you, though, when you’re rebuilding your entire first floor from floor to ceiling from the studs – $16,000 is a drop in the bucket. And that $6,500? Well, a master electrician will run you anywhere from $6,000 – 10,000 depending on how much work is needed.
We took what we could get and that money is long gone. FEMA will tell you their aid is not supposed to ‘make you whole again,’ it’s merely to help obtain the most basic elements to make your house safe & livable again. But it really doesn’t. Spend it wisely.
GETTING AN SBA LOAN
So; you don’t have flood insurance, you’re not independently wealthy, and FEMA barely gives enough to build new walls. What do you do? Well, you have to turn to the Small Business Association for a low interest loan. It’s just like getting a real bank loan except there are lots of other caveats that include things like liens on your house, and having contractors sign the papers as well. It’s all quite complicated, but they run a pretty tight ship. We were able to fill out all the paperwork and take care of everything at one of the many FEMA pop-up tents around the area.
After applying online, I received a call from our case worker for an interview about the condition of the house. I honestly can’t remember if they sent an inspector or just asked about what we lost. In the end, we were approved for a 30-year loan of $84,000 with an interest rate of 1.75%. Not too bad. They split it up and dedicate certain amounts for different parts of your reconstruction. For instance, they initially told us $45,000 was allocated home repair, $25,000 for personal property, and the rest for other things like landscaping and fencing, etc. The good thing is you can request to have the allocations moved around – which we eventually needed. They begin by disbursing $25,000 to you to begin with but require filings of court documents and bank forms and insurance forms before they will disburse the rest. There are a lot of hoops to jump through but in all honesty it’s been the easiest of everything so far.
The good thing is there’s no penalties for paying it off early, and payments don’t start until 1-year after the initial disbursement of the $25,000. Thankfully so far we haven’t had to touch any of that money since we’ve been fortunate to have money from friends, family, and donations from work. If all goes according to plan we should be able to pay back the entire $25,000 when the first payment is due. *crosses fingers*
Why did we get it, then? you’re probably asking. Well for one FEMA won’t take you seriously when you apply for your initial federal aid unless you’ve also applied for an SBA loan – it’s like they don’t want to give you much money if you can get it from someplace else. Secondly, it’s common sense because how else are you going to rebuild your entire first floor? The only other catch is that in order to get the SBA loan, you have to get flood insurance. So as you can see the whole thing is one big lasso of circular logic.
Like with FEMA – SAVE EVERYTHING. They require receipts to prove that you spent their money on rebuilding your house and not on hookers and blow. Though, it doesn’t say anything about not hiring hookers to rebuild your house or writing off blow as necessary materials….but I digress…
So that’s the, uh, brief, run down of everything we had to do to even get started. The follow-up to this post will be a kind of continuation – but deal more with the absolute bullshit we went through with everything else.
I hope this can help serve as a bit of a primer for anyone that finds themselves in a similar situation (but I hope not).
Thanks for reading. If you have any questions please leave them in the comments.