How to recover from the storm via insurance or FEMA

By Sahar Chmais

HAYS COUNTY – Hays County is one of the Texas counties that has been approved under the major disaster declaration from the federal government. This opens up disaster relief programs for residents to partake in.  

Before residents can receive the help they need, they must understand their eligibility in the program and how to navigate the system. To get Hays County residents information on what to do, District 45 State Representative Erin Zwiener hosted a virtual Disaster Recovery town hall on Thursday, Feb. 25. 

Zwiener invited two guests to discuss options on who to contact and where to get funds for repairs and losses. Lee Loftis, a director at Independent Insurance Agents of Texas, gave insight on the private insurance side. Michelle Ziegler, a technical analyst for Rand Corporation and volunteer with Team Rubicon, gave perspective on how to receive aid from the Federal  Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other organizations, although she does not represent FEMA. 

Given the magnitude of the disaster, which affected 254 counties, the process from beginning to end will take longer than a typical insurance claim. 

A rule of thumb in the claims process: a person must first make their claim with their home insurance agency. If they do not have one, or if the damage is not covered by their private agency, that is when a person can continue to seek help from FEMA. 

After a disaster, the first thing a person should do is mitigate further damage, Loftis said, such as shutting off the water. The next step would be to report the claim as quickly as possible and take photos and videos. After notifying insurance, an adjuster should be in touch within three to four days, Loftis said. If the agent does not get back in touch, the person should reach out again and make sure their case did not fall through the cracks. 

Since this is not an easy process, Ziegler and Loftis gave tips on how to get the best possible aid. 

Loftis suggests that a person takes photos of everything that has been damaged. Even if it is carpet that will eventually get thrown away, it is best to document the damage. 

The more context in the photos and videos, the better, Ziegler added. It is best to get an overall photo of the full wall, for example, and not just part of it. For an extra measure of thoroughness, it may be best to turn on location settings when taking the photos as proof that the damage took place in the resident’s home. 

Part of documenting the process means saving receipts; if repairs were made before insurance got involved, save the receipts. 

Knowing about delays in the insurance process, some people will, or have already, gotten repairs done. The insurance companies should compensate people for plumbing  repairs, Loftis said. 

But once the home is livable, a person should wait to finish the repairs. As far as replacing carpeting or fully reconstructing the home, it is better to wait until the adjuster has given some direction, Loftis said. In either case, it is best to communicate with an adjuster as soon as possible, he added. 

Loftis also asked of people who are affected to manage their expectations by knowing this storm has stretched resources thin. That includes less adjusters, less plumbers and shortage of contractors. 

The process through FEMA will differ from that of a private insurance company. FEMA may refer the applicant to a governmental loan agency to get a low impact disaster loan. Many people feel that they are being brushed off so they never finish applying, Ziegler said. She points out that until the applicant gets the loan or gets denied, FEMA cannot do anything else. 

Whichever direction the applicant gets sent in, Ziegler encourages them to finish the process. 

Oftentimes, it may not seem that a person has gotten enough funds to repair all their damages using FEMA, Ziegler said. This is because FEMA will give enough funds to ensure that a home is habitable, nothing more, she explained. 

If a den is still damaged, but it is not crucial to habitability, it will not be factored into the amount awarded, Ziegler said. 

FEMA will also help with rental assistance and transitional sheltering assistance. If a resident is living in an unsafe environment, they can sign up to be placed in a hotel or other temporary housing, Ziegler said. 

Depending on the insurer, there are some provisions for temporary housing, Loftis said. 

The process, from claim to fix, will take some time. According to Loftis, it is too early to know how long it will take for inspections to be done or when adjusters will come out. If the claim was reported sometime last week, the client should expect a call by early next week, Loftis estimated. 

Some companies have been doing a virtual walkthrough to speed up the process, Loftis noted. 

It should take no more than 10 days before the applicant hears from a FEMA inspector and then no more than 10 days between the inspector coming out and making the decision, Ziegler said. 

Sometimes a person can get rejected from receiving aid, but they can appeal that decision. 

Here are some recovery resources: 

To learn more from Ziegler and Loftis, watch the full video on the Facebook page: Erin Zwiener, Texas State Representative.

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Sahar Chmais holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She has been covering cities in Hays County for one year, touching on residents' struggles and successes, city issues, COVID-19 and more. Prior to reporting on the local spectrum, Sahar reported for a national news organization, covering gun violence. Sahar enjoys working as a local reporter because she gets to work with real people and their stories.

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