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Here’s how to apply for FEMA disaster relief, and what to avoid

Ryland Barton
Kentucky Public Radio

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Residents of western Kentucky who were impacted by the severe storms and tornadoes last week can apply now for disaster assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

President Joe Biden declared the tornado storm that struck Kentucky a major disaster, which unlocks a slew of federal assistance and programs for people who need it. Disaster assistance teams will be in Bowling Green, Dawson Springs and Mayfield to help people with their application. FEMA financial assistance may include money for temporary housing, basic home repair or other disaster-related needs such as childcare, transportation and medical, funeral or dental expenses.

But the process for obtaining relief from FEMA isn’t automatic — or available to everyone, for every loss. 

Denial is possible: Document everything

To get federal disaster aid, it’s important to document all damages and costs associated with the disaster as thoroughly as possible, according to Cory Dodds, lead public benefits staff attorney at Kentucky Legal Aid.

”It can often be difficult to access things like internet or fax machines or the infrastructure that we need, especially in times of crisis, in order to really follow through and track these claims and submit all the documentation on time,” said 

But if FEMA doesn’t know about the damages or property losses, they can’t reimburse you for it. 

“Any documentation that folks can provide is going to be critical in succeeding on their claim or getting the most out of their claim as they can,” Dodds said.

This includes pictures of the damage, receipts for major purchases associated with the disaster, estimates from contractors and insurance company documents.

According to legal experts, it’s not uncommon for individuals and families to be denied aid for a variety of reasons following a disaster. In fact, between 2014 and 2018, FEMA was about twice as likely to deny housing assistance to lower-income disaster survivors because the agency determined the damage to their home to be “insufficient” — in other words, the condition was poor before the weather event. 

Be prepared to appeal

People applying for federal relief should also expect this to be a long process, Dodds said. If you are denied the first time, you have the right to appeal that decision — and need to be persistent in following up with your application.

“Think about this as an ongoing conversation between [a person filing a claim] and FEMA,” he said. “For folks who have homeowners, renters, or car insurance, it’s quite likely that they could be denied any relief in the first little bit after they filed their application. But everyone who applies has the right to appeal that decision.” 

By law, FEMA can only provide relief for anything that’s not covered by insurance, so it’s also important to get a good understanding of what your insurance policies cover, and be prepared to provide that information to FEMA. And it might be a good idea to seek out legal help.

“We encourage folks to seek the advice of an attorney, such as our attorneys here at Kentucky legal aid, in requesting an appeal,” Dodds said. “Because quite likely, FEMA will want to get into the details of any insurance policies that are providing coverage. We can help go through their insurance policies and submit any additional evidence or documentation that is needed.”

The Kentucky Legal Aid team provides free legal advice and representation to low-income, disabled, and elderly people with civil legal problems. You can also find help through FEMA’s Disaster Legal Services program. The services they provide are confidential and they do not share information with FEMA.

How to apply

From now through February 11, 2022, Residents of Caldwell, Fulton, Graves, Hopkins, Marshall, Muhlenberg, Taylor and Warren Counties are eligible to apply for FEMA assistance if they were impacted by the storm. Here information on how to apply and things you should avoid in the application process:

Residents in the designated counties can apply online at, by calling 800-621-3362, or by using the FEMA mobile app. If you use a relay service, such as video relay (VRS), captioned telephone or other service, give FEMA the number for that service. When you apply, you will need to provide:

  • A current phone number where you can be contacted.
  • Your address at the time of the disaster and the address where you are now staying.
  • Your Social Security Number.
  • A general list of damage and losses.
  • Banking information if you choose direct deposit.
  • If insured, the policy number or the agent and/or the company name.

FEMA’s Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA) teams are also available for in-person applications assistance. Residents can visit these mobile registration sites in Dawson Spring and Mayfield from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily:
First Baptist Church - 960 Industrial Park Rd., Dawson Springs, KY 42408

The old Walmart location - Mayfield Plaza, 1102 Paris Rd., Mayfield, KY 42066

A mobile FEMA claims center is in Bowling Green Thursday, Dec. 16 - Henry Moss Middle School at 2565 Russellville Road. 

If you have homeowners or renter’s insurance, you must also file a claim with your insurance company. FEMA cannot duplicate benefits for losses covered by insurance. You will need to provide your insurance claim information to FEMA to determine eligibility for federal assistance.
Take photos to document damage and begin cleanup and repairs to prevent further damage. Remember to keep receipts from all purchases related to the cleanup and repair.
Disaster assistance may include financial help with temporary lodging and home repairs, along with other programs to assist those recovering from the storms.

Experts: What to avoid when applying for aid


Failing to document damage

One of the most important things you can do when filing a claim with FEMA is documenting everything as thoroughly as possible. Take pictures of everything. If you don’t have access to a phone or camera, write down everything you see with as much detail as possible. Do not repair anything unless you’ve documented it first.

Throwing away receipts

Keep all of your receipts and any records that can provide proof of the costs you’ve incurred following the disaster. This includes damages, repairs, hotel stays, funeral expenses, cleanup costs, etc. You can use scanner apps on your smartphone to keep track of your receipts electronically, or take photos of receipts, to ensure you have a record.

Not getting help

In the midst of a disaster, the last thing you want to think about is paperwork. Consulting with an attorney or legal aid representative might help take some of the pressure off and may result in a more successful application.

Filing a disorganized application

If you have a lot of documents, photos and receipts, you want to make sure it’s presented in a way that is understandable to the FEMA inspector. Provide a cover letter that explains what you have submitted and make sure to keep a copy for yourself.

Throwing away documents after you’ve submitted your application

Keep everything. It could be several months before you know whether you’ve been approved or denied. And if you are denied, you want to have all the tools you need to appeal that decision.

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