Welcome to the FEMA Appeals Volunteer Resources Page! On behalf of the San Antonio Legal Services Association (SALSA), we look forward to having you volunteer with our program. We appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to volunteer and provide legal representation to indigent, vulnerable and at-risk members of our community.
We appreciate that the sheer volume of information available about FEMA appeals can be overwhelming, so we have tailored this resource page to be as user-friendly as possible. This introductory page provides an overview of the FEMA appeals process, some basics about the FEMA inspection process and some suggestions about what to do first with your client.
As you scroll toward the bottom of the page, you will see links to pages that provide more detailed information about the types of claims you may be appealing. These claims fall into one of two broad categories (a) Housing Assistance (HA) and (b) Other Needs Assistance (ONA). There is also information about a separate process for assisting your client in seeking continuation of rental assistance, if applicable.
Please review this introductory page first and then review the additional pages linked at the bottom of this page once you identify the type of claim(s) your client may have.
If you have questions or need additional assistance during your representation please don’t hesitate to reach out to Lauren Effiom, SALSA’s Disaster Response Fellow, at [email protected], or to Alison McConnon, SALSA’s Pro Bono Coordinator, at [email protected].
FEMA Appeals Process Overview
You will be assigned a case where a client has filed at least one claim with FEMA for disaster assistance funding and been DENIED or RECEIVED LESS ASSISTANCE THAN REQUESTED. In order to help them craft their appeal, you will need to know what relief they should be entitled to receive. This will require you to have a “1000 foot view” of all available relief for residents of counties in federally declared disaster zones. At the bottom of this page we offer this broad overview of all available assistance to help familiarize yourself before you meet with your client.
Where to Find Rules and Regulations Governing FEMA Appeals
- FEDERAL RULES/REGULATIONS
- Stafford Act: 42 USC Sec 5174
- Federal Regulations: 44 CFR Section 206.110 – 206.120
- NOTE: Section 101 covers disaster before 2002, so please skip to page 12 of the PDF to find instruction on current disaster entitlements
- Disaster Recovery Reform Act (2018): https://www.fema.gov/disaster-recovery-reform-act-2018
- Note: legislation was enacted in 2018 and may impact federal law listed above
- STATE RULES/REGULATIONS
- Individual and Households Program – Other needs Assistance Program (IHP-ONA): 44 CFR, Part 206, Subpart D: https://hhs.texas.gov/book/export/html/19586
- State Action Plan: https://www.recovery.texas.gov.action-plans/index.html
- Texas Fraud and Fair Hearings Handbook: 1 T.A.C. Sec. 357.1 – 357.25: https://hhs.texas.gov/laws-regulations/handbooks/ffhh/section-1000-fair-hearings
- Only needed if filing a secondary appeal in front of THHSC; please consult with SALSA staff before you commit to this
OTHER HELPFUL RESOURCES:
What SALSA will Gather from Client
- Copy of client’s ID
- FEMA letters or documents client has received
- FEMA Authorization Form – faxed to FEMA by SALSA Staff
- Allows SALSA (i.e. volunteer attorneys and staff) to discuss the client’s case with FEMA
- PRACTICE TIP: File this signed document and a copy of client’s ID again every time you file something with FEMA
- Request for FEMA File – faxed to FEMA by SALSA Staff
- Ideally, this is something you would have BEFORE you file the appeal, but in practice the appeal due date often precedes the receipt of the FEMA File.
- What does the FEMA File contain?
- Correspondence from FEMA/Client (could impact deadlines; confirms whether your appeal is really the first one)
- Comments and contacts reports (reasoning of an inspector or the decisionmaker)
- Inspection report (sets out information about damage observed BUT doesn’t tell you whether inspector found it affected habitability; doesn’t tell you the costs associated with each line item (may be able to get line item cost information from CALLING FEMA hotline)
Understanding FEMA Deadlines
- The appeal deadline is generally 60 days from date of FEMA’s decision, NOT the date client received the letter
- For letters written in Spanish, the dates follow the date/month/year format, NOT the English month/date/year format.
- Applicants usually receive a decision letter within 10 days after the first inspection, followed by financial assistance, if approved (may include a SBA loan application).
- If clients are approved for benefits (tax free/exempt from garnishment/do not count against other types of federally-funded aid), money must ONLY be used for intended purpose and client must keep receipts and bills to document use for 3 years.
- Applicant may need to amend their application based on changed circumstances (write to FEMA to do this).
- FEMA typically accepts late appeals with good cause (e.g. If client was in the hospital, had to evacuate to another city, etc. If there is a good reason the client didn’t meet the appeal deadline, use it. If “I didn’t know” is the only option the client has, try it – it may be sufficient.)
- Other Needs Assistance (ONA) programs typically do not accept late appeals.
- If FEMA requests supplemental information, there is usually a 21-day deadline.
- Can you get an extension? If you receive information from your client shortly before a deadline, do what you can to file something timely, and request time to supplement if you need it. There’s no guarantee that FEMA will honor it, but requests of this nature have been honored in past disasters.
What Happens when you Appeal
What will FEMA do with appeal after I file it?
- Receive it by mail or fax (practice tip is to send via certified mail AND fax)
- Upload it into their system (scan and label)
- Submit file requests for processing
- HA appeals placed in queue for review (up to 90 days)
- ONA appeals sent from FEMA to THHSC for review (up to 90 days)
What should I follow-up with FEMA about immediately after submission?
- Confirm appeal received/properly labeled and forwarded for review (if ONA)
- Confirm nothing else needed and/or resolve any problems with documentation or problems with third party
What happens if I need to supplement the appeal?
- If you send letters to supplement appeal, we don’t know what happens to the appeal (whether they take it out of queue, etc.) but we know that FEMA usually won’t respond if you promise to supplement in your cover letter but should hold file aside for supplement.
- If you mention a supplement in your appeal letter but don’t end up needing to supplement, contact FEMA to make sure appeal goes into queue
No decision issued and it has been longer than 90 days?
- Find out why it is taking so long – may be a need for additional troubleshooting or case may have been decided but no written notice was sent out (if you can prove lack of notification was a FEMA error, you may have more time to file a subsequent appeal).
What if appeal decision is a denial of HA or not enough money?
- Is there new information since the last appeal that would warrant an additional appeal?
- Did FEMA err and can I demonstrate that?
- Did FEMA neglect to do a second inspection despite your providing the proper supporting documents?
- Did FEMA apply the wrong standard?
- Did FEMA consider the wrong documents?
PLEASE REACH OUT TO SALSA STAFF TO DISCUSS TAKING ON ADDITIONAL APPEALS
Important Contact Information and Communication Tips
FEMA HELPLINE (1-800-621-FEMA) / THHSC-ONA (1-800-582-5233)
- Always have the client’s FEMA File information with you when you call and make sure you identify yourself as an attorney with San Antonio Legal Services Association (SALSA), since that is what is listed on the client’s authorization form.
- Some FEMA hotline workers may balk if a specific advocate’s name is not on the form – NOT REQUIRED – CALL BACK – or some may assert that something different is required – “written consent” or “POA” – NOT REQUIRED – CALL BACK.
- If you continue to get pushback, SALSA staff is listed on each authorization form so please contact Lauren ([email protected]) or Alison ([email protected]) so they can hop on a conference call to assist you.
- Always ask for FEMA Hotline worker’s name and ID number each time you talk to FEMA. The call will be an entry in the FEMA File. Operators have varying degrees of training/experience and they may be reading OR interpreting notes in the database to provide you with an update.
FEMA Appeals 101
Initial Inspections: Inspections occur in MOST but not all FEMA claims (tied to the “type” of claim being made).
- FEMA will USUALLY promptly inspect the property. The purpose of the inspection is to establish that home is uninhabitable (for rental assistance or units), needs repairs/replacing, or that other property damage occurred.
- Must verify ownership and occupancy at every inspection.
- In past disasters there have been problems with quality of inspections (e.g. “drive-by” inspections) – if this happens, make sure to include this in FEMA Appeal. Because of the pandemic FEMA is conducting “virtual” inspections for all claims. See Handbook re: virtual and telephonic inspections for an overview of the current process.
- Most inspectors are not FEMA Employees. They are hired by two companies to provide inspections as independent contractors. They may not have any experience with evaluating damage to homes because the only requirement is a criminal background check.
- Limited in what they cannot/do not do – e.g.: cannot use a ladder to view roof; don’t get underneath a house.
- In the past, inspectors have received bonuses if they hit quotas.
- Ask client if there was a language barrier and ask how they felt during inspection and include that information in FEMA appeal.
- FEMA inspectors decide a LOT of threshold issues: ownership verification; applicant occupation; whether damage/losses are disaster-related; whether housing damage affects habitability; whether essential items were affected; and whether the client’s other needs are serious.
PowerPoint Presentation on Remote Inspections – Overview of Individual Assistance Housing Inspection Service Remote Inspections
FEMA Guidelines for Remote Inspections – FEMA Housing Inspection Services Inspection Guidelines
Second Inspections: If you don’t like the outcome of the first inspection, the goal is to get a second one! FEMA does not look at appeals and then make an award when an inspection has been conducted – the “remedy” is to order another inspection. Clients need to promptly respond to inspector and if there is a practical obstacle to new inspection, push for alternatives.
Common Problems while Dealing with FEMA
- Navigating bureaucracy: FEMA tells people it’s easy, but the process is really difficult for clients to navigate. The process wears people down when they’ve already been hit by a disaster – your client has likely spoken with people from multiple agencies trying to obtain assistance so verify through document review or by calling the hotline what they have actually provided to FEMA.
- Breakdown in communication: Maybe applicant is still waiting on inspection, but verify that there aren’t electronic notices they can’t access or that there isn’t an error in mailing address or other application information that needs to be corrected (PRACTICE TIP: best to correct this in writing)
- If no word on Personal Property Assistance (PPA) or Transportation Assistance (TA), confirm SBA loan app done if it was a pre-requisite
- Even though you are the attorney for your client, FEMA will only send denial letters and updates regarding your client’s case to your client. Therefore, it is best to stay in constant communication with your client about any communication FEMA has had with them to avoid delays in your client’s case.
What to Do when you Meet with your Client
- DISCUSS – Discuss client’s needs with them:
- What did they lose due to the disaster?
- Client has presumably applied to FEMA – make sure they have!
- Did FEMA conduct an inspection?
- Did FEMA issue a decision letter to client?
- If FEMA has issued a decision letter, has the client tried to appeal on their own? (This will help you gauge next steps.)
- REVIEW – FEMA documents client may have:
- Denial or approval dates;
- Denial codes; and
- Inspector comments.
- DETERMINE – Determine what client may qualify for:
- Check regulations to see whether client meets threshold requirements.
- Make sure that if client DID receive benefits that they are actually eligible for them so that they aren’t subject to recoupment.
- Check regulations to see whether client meets threshold requirements.
Use the FEMA Client Interviewing Tool as your guide for this discussion – see overview below for more details.
Overview of Available Assistance
Texas operates a bifurcated disaster recovery process where claims are divided into two categories: HOUSING ASSISTANCE (administered by FEMA) and OTHER NEEDS ASSISTANCE (administered by FEMA and THHSC).
There are multiple programs within these two large categories for which your client may be eligible for relief funds. Once you determine your client’s threshold eligibility, you can learn more about how to develop a comprehensive appeal by clicking on the buttons below.
- Housing Assistance
- Home Replacement Assistance
- Rental Assistance
- Transitional Sheltering Assistance
FEMA Housing Assistance is capped at $35,500.00 (excludes rental assistance and certain expenses related to accessibility).
- Personal Property
- Medical, Dental, Childcare, Funeral, Moving & Storage, Clean Up, Misc.
Other Needs Assistance is capped at $35,500.00 (separate from FEMA Housing Assistance cap and excludes certain expenses related to accessibility).
Clients receiving rental assistance benefits from FEMA may be eligible for continued assistance but MUST reapply to obtain continued assistance.