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DISASTER RECOVERY – A GUIDE FOR MUNICIPAL OFFICIALS

By Mary J. Goepfert, APR, Community Relations Coordinator, NJ Office of Emergency Management, July 2001

This is the second in a series of articles designed to offer local government officials information about continuing municipal operations in a post-disaster environment. Future articles will address emergency planning and reducing disaster-related economic losses.

Municipal governments share responsibility for protecting their citizens from disasters, and for helping them to recover when disaster strikes. The NJ Office of Emergency Management (NJOEM) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are key partners is this process, offering resources and programs to help local governments, school districts and residents pick up the pieces and return the community back to normal. A municipal government’s ability to access federal disaster relief programs quickly, efficiently, and appropriately can limit disaster related losses, lessen financial and psychological impact for community members, and enhance a community’s ability to survive – and eventually thrive -- in disaster’s wake.

Disaster recovery is rarely an easy process. It is financially, physically, and emotionally exhausting for everyone involved, especially after a flood. Confusion and misinformation about relief programs often becomes an enormous source of frustration for the community members who are impacted, and for the local officials who are involved in the response.

None of FEMA’s programs are designed to replace individual losses 100% -- only to bring living conditions back to a “safe and habitable” condition. The majority of federal disaster assistance is conveyed in the form of U.S. Small Business Administration Loans, not grants. Public entities will complete stacks of paperwork, undergo numerous inspections, and devote hundreds of man-hours toward reimbursement for disaster-related losses.

So why get involved ?

Despite these complexities, federal disaster relief is all that many individuals have to rely on to rebuild their lives. This is particularly true for those homeowners without flood insurance – and 30% of disaster related claims occur outside federally designated floodplain areas. Moreover, your community’s level of cooperation in FEMA’s Public Assistance program may prevent another disaster in a municipal budget, strained to capacity from unforeseen expenses. Commitment to the disaster recovery process is every municipal official’s moral, social, and legal responsibility.

So the question is not why, but “how” and “when.”

DISASTER RECOVERY 101

  1. The incident occurs. Your municipal resources are overwhelmed. Experience all, most, or some of the following scenarios: emergency responders on overtime for days or weeks; all municipal departments activated during the event or immediately after; severe impacts to residents – death, injuries, evacuations. Damage to homes, infrastructure, public buildings, schools, water supply and sanitation systems. Utility outages. Hospitals inundated. Mountains of debris in the streets. Shelters opened. Volunteer (i.e., Red Cross, Salvation Army) assistance and mutual aid from surrounding communities.
  2. Municipal, county, state, and federal officials conduct a Preliminary Damage Assessment (PDA) to determine the extent of the disaster and its impact on individuals, infrastructure and public facilities. Recording the severity and magnitude of the incident is the first step is in preparing the documents necessary to request federal disaster assistance. During or after a high-profile event, the NJOEM will provide on-scene assistance, and request this information almost immediately. The sooner PDA information is provided to the NJOEM, the sooner your request for assistance can be communicated to FEMA.
  3. The NJOEM compiles PDA information from impacted communities and prepares the Governor’s request to FEMA for federal disaster assistance. You will continue to field questions from the media and residents about “who will pay” and how local needs will be met. You rely on local resources, assistance from Voluntary Organizations, and wait for an answer on a disaster declaration request. State and county officials will continue to assess damage and determine unmet needs.
  4. The Governor’s Request for a Federal Disaster Declaration is made to the President, through FEMA Regional II and FEMA national offices. You will escort state and federal legislators on tours of the impacted areas. They may possibly advocate on your behalf in Trenton or Washington; but all Request for Federal Disaster Declarations must be made formally, through FEMA.
  5. Based on the Governor’s request, the President may declare that a major disaster or emergency exists, and activate an array of Federal programs to assist in the response and recovery effort. The terms “emergency declaration” and “disaster declaration” are designations for specific jurisdictions (usually counties), if they become eligible for federal disaster assistance. Federal disaster area determinations are not automatic, and can take as long as 30 days. However, in severe incidents (such as Hurricane Floyd), they usually come within hours or days after the event. Denied requests may be appealed, and the NJOEM usually assists with the appeal, if damage assessment data can support it.
  6. (If a Presidential Disaster Declaration is received), FEMA establishes a Disaster Field Office (DFO) in coordination with the NJOEM. The 800 Teleregistration Number for residents’ disaster claims is operational. FEMA establishes a Disaster Field Office to manage the hundreds of disaster assistance employees who will be assigned to affected areas. Experience most of the following scenarios: Town Meetings where FEMA and State staff can discuss the disaster relief effort with community members; endless media interviews; intense interaction with FEMA and State reps concerning reimbursements to the municipality for disaster-related damages; FEMA and State Community Relations personnel traversing every neighborhood to encourage residents to teleregister; questions from residents about disaster programs; unexpected donations; FEMA inspectors verifying damage and processing claims; community members who may be exhausted, anxious, and grieving their losses. Initially, FEMA will need your assistance escorting, or even transporting disaster relief workers through damaged areas.
  7. One year later. An article in the local or regional newspaper on the anniversary of the disaster. Is the community on the road to recovery? Are resident’s homes repaired? Have they been relocated out of floodplain areas? Have they retrofitted the structures, if remaining in the floodplains? What were the short and long-term impacts ? What’s been done to prevent this from happening the future?

Will you be able to answer these questions?

TYPES OF FEDERAL DISASTER ASSISTANCE

Federal disaster assistance available under a major disaster declaration falls into three general categories:

Individual Assistance - aid to individuals, families and business owners.

Public Assistance - aid to public (and certain private non-profit) entities for certain emergency services and the repair or replacement of disaster-damaged public facilities;

Hazard Mitigation Assistance - funding for measures designed to reduce future losses to public and private property. In the event of a major disaster declaration, all counties within the declared State are eligible to apply for assistance under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

Not all federal disaster relief programs are activated for every disaster. Presidential decisions about relief programs are based on the preliminary damage assessment and any subsequent information that may be discovered. Some disaster declarations will provide only Individual Assistance or only Public Assistance. Hazard mitigation opportunities are available in most situations. Municipal cooperation in the damage assessment process helps insure that residents obtain as many benefits as possible under the law.

A brief overview of each of these programs follows.

INDIVIDUAL ASSISTANCE – HELPS INDIVIDUALS AND FAMILIES

Individual Assistance benefits individuals and families. In every case, the disaster victim must register for assistance to establish eligibility. The toll-free telephone registration number is 1-800-462-9029 (or TTY 1-800-462-7585 for the hearing or speech impaired). FEMA (or the providing agency) will verify eligibility and need before assistance is offered. Individual Assistance includes the following programs.

Temporary Housing Assistance - assures that people whose homes are damaged by disaster have a safe place to live until repairs can be completed. These programs are designed to provide funds for expenses that are not covered by insurance. They are available only to homeowners and renters who are legal residents of the United States and who were displaced by the disaster.

Home Repair Assistance - helps repair a home to a “habitable” condition. The amount of the check is based on structural damage, as determined by a FEMA inspection.

Rental assistance provides for rent until affected structure becomes habitable.

Mortgage and Rental assistance (MRA) provides a check to pay the rent or mortgage to prevent eviction or foreclosure.

Individual and Family Grants - The Individual and Family Grant Program (IFG) provides funds for the necessary expenses and serious needs of disaster victims that cannot be met through insurance or other forms of disaster assistance (including low interest loans from the Small Business Administration). Applicants will be tested for a loan first. To obtain assistance for housing and personal property, applicants may be required to apply to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) for a disaster loan. If the SBA determines the applicant ineligible for a loan, or if the loan amount is insufficient, the applicant is referred to the IFG program. The average grant IFG check tends to be in the $2,000 to $4,000 range. Among the needs that can be met through the IFG Program are housing, personal property, medical, dental, funeral, transportation and required flood insurance premiums.

Small Business Administration Disaster Loans - The SBA can provide three types of disaster loans to qualified homeowners and businesses: Home Disaster Loans to homeowners and renters, Business Physical Disaster Loans to business owners to repair or replace disaster-damaged property, and Economic Injury Disaster Loans, which provide capital to small businesses and to small agricultural cooperatives to assist them through the disaster recovery period.

For many individuals the SBA disaster loan program is the primary form of disaster assistance.

Other FEMA programs for individuals include Disaster Unemployment Assistance, Legal Services, Tax Relief Considerations and Crises Counseling.

PUBLIC ASSISTANCE – REIMBURSEMENT TO MUNICIPALITIES & PNP’S

FEMA Public Assistance funds the repair, restoration, reconstruction, or replacement of a public facility or portion of the infrastructure that is damaged or destroyed by a disaster. Certain private nonprofit (PNP) organizations may also receive assistance. Eligible PNP's include educational, utility, emergency, medical, rehabilitation, and temporary or permanent custodial care facilities (including those for the aged and disabled), and other PNP facilities that provide essential services of a governmental nature to the general public.

As soon as practicable after the declaration, the State, assisted by FEMA, conducts briefings for State, local and PNP officials to inform them of the assistance available and how to apply for it. Intent to apply for assistance must be filed with the State within 30 days after the area is designated eligible for assistance.

Projects fall into the following categories: Debris removal, Emergency protective measures, Road systems and bridges, Water control facilities, Public buildings and contents, Public utilities, and Parks and Recreation.

For insurable structures within Special Flood Hazard Areas, primarily buildings, assistance from FEMA is reduced by the amount of insurance settlement that could have been obtained under a standard NFIP policy. Municipalities should insure public property in flood hazard areas. For structures located outside of a SFHA, FEMA will reduce the amount of eligible assistance by any insurance proceeds.

FEMA reviews and approves the project applications and obligates the Federal share of the costs (75 percent) to the State. The State then disburses funds to local applicants.

For small projects, payment of the Federal share of the estimate is made upon approval of the project and no further accounting to FEMA is required. For large projects, payment is made on the basis of actual costs determined after the project is completed; although interim payments may be made as necessary. Once FEMA obligates funds to the State, further management of the assistance, including disbursement to subgrantees is the responsibility of the NJOEM. FEMA will continue to monitor the recovery progress to ensure the timely delivery of eligible assistance and compliance with the law and regulations.

HAZARD MITIGATION

Hazard Mitigation refers to sustained measures enacted to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to people and property from natural hazards and their effects. In the long term, mitigation measures reduce personal loss, save lives, and reduce the cost to the nation of responding to and recovering from disasters.

Eligible mitigation projects include acquisition or relocation of properties located in high hazard areas; elevation of flood prone structures; seismic and wind retrofitting of existing structures; and protecting existing structures against wildfire.

LESSONS LEARNED – FROM THOSE WHO’VE BEEN THERE

Thomas Loughlin, New Brunswick Business Administrator, advises: “Keep good records of your expenditures and losses – overtime, subcontractors, anything -- you can translate those records into a well-written application for disaster reimbursement. Initially, we were unfamiliar with the reporting system. Once we understood the FEMA reporting system, our Public Assistance application moved smoothly.” Tropical Storm Floyd caused severe damage to riverfront Boyd Park, flooded out the Police Headquarters, caused high-rise evacuations, and ruined historical restorations to the D&R Canal.

“It was difficult to try and put a value on the losses sustained at Riverside Park, it’s always been city-owned land, and improved over the years. But FEMA stood with us; they wanted to help us put a good application together. They were very helpful at a time when we needed them. Remember that FEMA has a set of rules, and they are required to work with them. At the end of the day we were pleased with our reimbursement, it wasn’t 100%, but close to it; we were very thankful.”

“During a disaster, people rise to the occasion and forget about boundaries. New Brunswick sent emergency personnel to Bound Brook when we were in a crisis ourselves – and I know many other communities did the same. In the past 8 years I’ve been Business Administrator, we’ve had 4 or 5 ‘100-year’ storms. Make sure you have a plan in place in to deal with it; make sure you have the right kind of insurance coverage. Make sure you have your assets protected.”

From Newton, which was impacted during the August 12-13, weekend rainstorms and mudslides in Sussex and Morris Counties: “Anyone can deliver municipal services on a day-to-day basis. But when it comes to an emergency, when citizens’ health and welfare are at stake, that’s when we have to prove we can serve the public, we have to shine,” notes Camille Furguiele Newton Town Manager.

The storms completely destroyed 1-½ miles of Newton’s water mains, severely impacting its water supply. “We arranged for a contractor to access Sparta’s system, the State DEP was there on Monday to approve the project, and by 2 p.m. we turned on two new wells. It went so smoothly, most residents didn’t even know what happened.”

Furguiele calls her municipal emergency management staff a “…team like you wouldn’t believe,” and credits planning, a yearly exercise, and training with being able to prevent an emergency from becoming a disaster. She advises other local officials to be “as forthcoming as possible when, the State or FEMA requests information. Don’t be intimidated by the reimbursement process. Give them every piece of information they require, even if you have to sit down and show them in an interview. Budgetary analysis will be necessary. It’s worth it in the long run.”

NOTE: On October 30, 2000, H.R. 707 -- The Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 -- was signed into law, resulting in modifications to federal disaster assistance programs. It is anticipated that there will be increased emphasis on risk reduction measures and limited changes to individual and public assistance programs. Municipal officials should strongly emphasize the importance of obtaining flood insurance and rental insurance to community members. Further questions or information contact: Mary J. Goepfert, APR Community Relations Coordinator, NJOEM 609-538-6065; lppgoepm@gw.njsp.org.


 
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