Navigating the Bureaucracy of FEMA

 By C. Arthur Reavis

In 2006 I worked as a Crisis Counselor for the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier (MHAST) to assist the flood survivors. I saw lots of devastation and heard many heartbreaking tales of loss. Not to mention the struggles of those trying to regain some semblance of their lives prior to being flooded. Sometimes one of the biggest obstacles facing a survivor was FEMA’s bureaucracy. Our team (the Binghamton Team) had experienced first-hand how inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary FEMA was in reimbursing taxpayers for their losses. We had witnessed several cases of residences that were adjacent to one and other, and had suffered almost identical damages, receiving vastly different amounts of money from FEMA (and in 2006 New York State). We also witnessed many cases of documents being “lost” and denials of claims based on apparently minor technicalities. When asked about these inconsistent and seemingly arbitrary benefit awards two FEMA official simply looked at one and other, smiled…and assured us (myself and my other team members) that: “Each case is handled on an individual basis.” In other words they keep it purposely vague to give the agency the maximum amount of wiggle room when it came to handing out cash. (My interpretation!)

This was no surprise to me, because this is a common game that OUR Government plays when it is time to hand out ‘benefits’ to the people. The government is notorious for playing such games with disability claims.

The game (generically) goes as follows: People apply for benefits. Government officials find small technical reasons to reject their applications. Those people denied MUST appeal the denial in order to proceed with their claim. The Government knows about those denials; some will not appeal, some won’t understand the specific grounds on which, even if they do appeal, they legitimately can win said appeal. And finally when faxing documents or having no proof of receipt of documents it’s easy to “lose” those documents. Thus some people will simply get frustrated and give up. When all is said and done the Government “saves money” by simply narrowing the pool of people






that it deems “acceptable” to receives benefits. And even if someone receives benefits, many times those survivors need to appeal because they were initially low-balled on the amount they received.

Therefore our team developed our own appeals process that limited FEMA’s ability to play the game. Here it is!

To appeal a denial or the amount of money that you have received from FEMA you need to contact FEMA by phone (800-621-FEMA) and inform them that you wish to appeal. Applicants have 60 days to file an appeal, but if there are extenuating circumstances sometimes FEMA will accept an appeal after the 60-day deadline.

Then you send FEMA a detailed letter explaining your circumstances, why you are appealing and supply ALL supporting documentation: pictures, estimates, receipts and an itemized list of all that was lost or damaged. ONLY SEND COPIES! Send this letter, and all letters, certified mail, return receipt requested! Then copy-circulate (cc) ALL elected representatives from your local ones right up to your Senators. You must include the phrase: “In accordance with the Privacy Act of 1974, you and your staff are hereby authorized to freely discuss any and all aspects of my situation.” This gives all of the political officials the authority to handle your request. This will cost some money in postage, be prepared for it.

I found that by following this process, people had some success 2006 in arguing their appeal. Actually the feedback our team got in 2006 was quite good when people followed this process. It may be overkill? But sometimes it was the difference between receiving next to nothing and receiving the maximum pay-out. Please also be aware that the Broome County Bar Association is available for consultations if you think you may need a lawyer. Good luck!




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