Local News

FEMA: Don't stop asking for help until all questions answered

Posted May 4, 2011 4:55 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2011 6:57 p.m. EDT

— Responding to concerns that tornado victims were receiving form letters denying their applications for aid, state and federal officials said Wednesday that people need to get their questions answered to ensure there are no mix-ups.

WRAL News on Tuesday reported the plight of Willie Wrench, whose Dunn home was so badly damaged by the April 16 tornado that Harnett County officials condemned it.

After Wrench applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance to help him rebuild, he received a letter rejecting his claim and stating that his house sustained "minor damage" and was a safe place to live.

"What is FEMA for if they can’t help you at a time like this? I mean, they’re just wasting money having people out here signing you up, and then you don’t get nothing," he said. "It causes hard feelings, mixed feelings and everything else."

A FEMA spokeswoman acknowledged that the letter was "badly worded" but said it denied aid only for needs like medical expenses or moving or storage costs, not for any home repairs.

Glen Sachtleben of FEMA and Emily Young of the state Division of Emergency Management said Wednesday that various things could trigger an initial rejection letter, such as not filling out a loan application properly or having private insurance.

Wrench has insurance coverage, and his insurer has offered him $94,000 to raze the home and rebuild from scratch. He said he had hoped FEMA would pick up any additional rebuilding costs.

"It's a process. It begins with that registration," Sachtleben said.

"First, you're trying to find all the help you can. Then, you tend to shut down. So, we're hoping that people will come to the disaster assistance centers or call the 800 number," Young said.

FEMA has opened to handle applications for aid in hard-hit communities. People also can call the agency toll-free at 1-800-621-3362 or can apply online.

Gov. Beverly Perdue said the positive stories of FEMA help in recent weeks far outweigh the mistakes. She and other government officials said tornado victims need to sort through the bureaucracy.

"You're always going to have one or two things that go wrong. We work with FEMA. I don't make the choices about the FEMA evaluations," Perdue said.

Although two of Wrench's neighbors also received rejection letters from FEMA, WRAL News couldn't find evidence Wednesday of similar letters being sent to storm victims.

As for Wrench, he said he's done with FEMA. Several representatives met with him at his house on Wednesday morning, but he said he didn't want to talk with them.