FEMA's new fast track to shelter, power

FEMA workers Matt Tholl and Dustin Bates go FEMA workers Matt Tholl and Dustin Bates go door-to-door to talk with super storm Sandy victims about qualifying for aid. (Nov. 21, 2012) Photo Credit: J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Considering her recent luck, Regina Clarke looked apprehensively at the three people who approached her Seaford home earlier this week. The contents of neighbors' homes were mounded in the street up and down her block. A cardboard sign made up by one nearby resident asked the owner of a boat resting in his yard to identify himself and please take it away. Clarke's own home had been soaked, the boiler ruined and her husband had injured himself in a fall while examining the damage.

She looked relieved when the visitors explained they were a community relations team with the Federal Emergency Management Agency there to give her details about the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power program, or STEP. The plan aims to bring quick-fix relief to those still suffering from Sandy's wrath, something Clarke was glad to hear.

"We're all safe and sound," she says. "We just need a little warmth."

Warmth and more will be coming down the pike for exhausted homeowners starting this week with the innovative STEP program, a joint effort of national, state and local agencies that is sending an army of contractors into devastated areas on Long Island to help residents reclaim their homes.

Speed -- especially for people shivering in homes without power -- is all important, says FEMA coordinating officer Mike Byrne. The effort may involve as many as 30,000 residents.

"We know people are suffering," he says. "We have to keep pushing to get this done."

What follows is information about what you need to know about the relief program, including what is provided and where to sign up.


WHAT IS IT?

This first-of-its-kind program was created because traditional temporary relief efforts simply couldn't be applied on Long Island. There are too few rental homes available to help those made homeless by the storm. Hotels are booked up for the holidays and one of FEMA's last lines of defense -- bringing in trailers -- simply isn't feasible on a large scale because there is no place to put them. After an interagency meeting, the idea was born to hire contractors to help people temporarily fix up their homes, Byrne says.

HOW DO I FIND A CONTRACTOR?

You don't have to. STEP will take care of that. The work will come in three phases. The first will be an assessment where each home will be examined to see what needs to be done to make it habitable. Next, contractors hired by the county will be sent in to help restore power and/or do basic work. Lastly, inspectors will come by to check on the work after it has been completed.


WHO'S ELIGIBLE?

You are if you live in Nassau or Suffolk counties and are without power or have a home that is not habitable because of storm damage. Of course, no one will force you to sign up. It's all voluntary.


WHAT WILL THEY DO?

Work will include things like restoring electrical panels and circuit breakers, patching windows or doors, fixing holes in the roof, bringing in temporary hot water heaters and providing some warmth with baseboard heating or space heaters. "It's not going to be the Taj Mahal, but it will be a place where people can stay safely," Byrne says.


WHAT WILL THEY NOT DO?

Keep in mind that aesthetics is not the primary goal of STEP. What the program is trying to do is make each home "safe and habitable," says FEMA spokeswoman Hannah Vick. For major repairs, homeowners and renters can apply for FEMA's traditional Individual Assistance program. Long Island recently secured $208 million in federal emergency aid for this end.

Homeowners may obtain grants of up to a maximum of $31,900 depending on the situation and insurance coverage. The money does not have to be repaid and can also be used toward renting an apartment, hotel room or mobile home. Benefits received by a homeowner through STEP won't count against that federal assistance, officials say. Applications for the individual assistance program must be filed with FEMA by Dec. 29. By law, the traditional FEMA program cannot reimburse people for what is covered by individual insurance policies. However, it can help fill in gaps in such policies, especially if the homeowner did not have flood insurance.


WHERE DO I SIGN UP?

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Teams of community relations workers have been targeting homes this week to give advice on where to sign up for the STEP program. Suffolk County residents can call 211 to register. Nassau County residents should call 888-684-4267.

Once connected, you should indicate you are interested in signing up for STEP. Afterward, you will be asked about your particular circumstances and damages, then walked through the application process, Vick says. This will allow each municipality to start the temporary repair process. Foreign language speakers also will be available at those numbers.

Those who wish to register for FEMA's traditional assistance program can call 800-621-3362. Residents also can apply online at disasterassistance.gov. FEMA encourages renters, business owners and residents who suffered substantial damage to apply for a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration, with which the disaster agency partners.


WHAT WILL THE WORK COST?

Nothing. FEMA will pick up three-fourths of the tab. The county will pick up the rest.


WHEN WILL IT START?

The initial phase -- the part that includes assessments of what is to be done in each household -- has already begun and should be under full steam, Byrne says.

Fifty three-person teams of licensed contractors were sent into communities for the initial assessment, says Mitch Pally, chief executive of the Long Island Builders Institute, a home builders industry group. Each team has a builder, an electrician and a plumber from Long Island, he says, and they are moving quickly.

"They want to get the assessment done and move on so they get to as many houses as possible," he says.


CAN I GET REIMBURSED IF I DO THE REPAIRS MYSELF?

Yes, FEMA can provide some assistance for repairs made by the homeowner, although it would not come through the STEP program. That reimbursement would instead come through the traditional program. Officials encourage people in this category to be safe and make sure their work meets local code requirements.


HOW LONG WILL THE STEP PROGRAM LAST?

The projected time limit is two months. Emergency officials expect most of the emergency housing problems to be solved by then, but they will reassess the situation at that time, Byrne says.


WHAT IF I'M NOT SATISFIED?

Those who have complaints about the work done on their home can call the STEP numbers to register a complaint. They can also call the FEMA Fraud Hotline at 866-720-5721.

Vick says homeowners recently have told the agency that bogus FEMA workers have shown up at some homes asking for money up front to begin repairs and assuring the homeowner they will be reimbursed by the agency later. No legitimate FEMA person will ever ask for money, Vick says. Ask anyone who shows up to produce identification or official badges, she adds. Then, call the hotline fraud number if they can't.

Byrne, who grew up in East Harlem and worked as a firefighter in the New York metropolitan area, says he isn't worried that residents here will be shy about complaints over work done to their homes. "It has been my experience that New Yorkers have no problem expressing their dissatisfactions," he says. "We'll hear about it."

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