Westchester County and Rockland County residents rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy should be applying now for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials said Sunday.
"What we emphasize for people who have just been through a very traumatic experience and who have lost a lot, or all, is that speed counts," said FEMA spokesman William L. Rukeyser. "The sooner they can tell us their story, the sooner we can get assistance to them."
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People in the two counties who have suffered losses in the storm should immediately call 800-621-FEMA or visit www.disasterassistance.gov to begin their applications, Rukeyser said. Households became eligible for as much as $31,000 in FEMA aid Friday when President Barack Obama declared the counties to be disaster zones.
As of Saturday, the agency has approved $100 million in aid requests in the tristate area, Rukeyser said.
He added that they also shouldn't wait to begin work repairing their homes but should document that work with receipts and other information they can share with FEMA inspectors who would visit their homes as part of the application process.
Local lawmakers made the same point.
"What I'm telling everyone is to document, document," said U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey on Sunday at the United Way of Westchester and Putnam counties. "Keep your receipts."
FEMA is planning to establish disaster recovery centers in Pomona in Rockland County and an undetermined location in Westchester, Rukeyser said.
Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said the County Center in White Plains, which FEMA has used in the past, is booked in the coming weeks. Officials are scouting for another location.
Residents won't be able to request aid at the center. Rather, center workers will provide information, phones and computers for residents seeking aid, Rukeyser said. So if local residents can call or use a computer from home or elsewhere to apply for aid, they shouldn't wait for the centers to open.
When applying for FEMA aid, residents will provide basic information like their names and addresses as well as Social Security numbers for their family members and insurance information, Rukeyser said. The agency provides grants for losses not covered by insurance. Business owners who call the agency also can apply for Small Business Administration loans.
Governments also are applying for FEMA aid. Westchester County, for example, is applying for at least $100 million of aid, Astorino said.
Under present rules, FEMA would compensate the county for 75 percent of its losses. But if FEMA designates Hurricane Sandy as a major event -- which technically has yet to happen, Rukeyser said -- the federal government could cover 90 percent of the county's cost.
Astorino said that, given the county's tight budget, the difference between 75 and 90 percent is massive. Estimated damages to Rye Playland, the county-owned amusement park, for example, have been revised up to $12 million. The difference in reimbursements on Playland alone therefore is $1.8 million.
"Our budgets are severely strained," Astorino said.