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Disaster Victims Fail to Seek Aid

In Alabama, officials concerned about low numbers of older residents registering with FEMA

Getting the word out

An element of doubt about FEMA has also been added by recent news that two older women in Wisconsin have been asked to return more than $10,000 in assistance funds delivered after floods swamped their homes in 2007 and 2008. FEMA insists the problem is no more. "Under our current leadership, strong protections have been put in place to greatly reduce the error rate of improper disaster payments," says Rachel Racusen, director of public affairs for FEMA.

Local organizations say they are starting to turn the corner and reach more older people living in out-of-the-way rural areas. Pam McDaniel, director for the Area Agency on Aging in West Alabama, has started sending her teams to find older people and to "strongly encourage" those she encounters to register with FEMA. McDaniel was uplifted by a recent referral she received from the Red Cross of a senior who lived far outside of Tuscaloosa. McDaniel had heard people from the area were living in tents, and she's delighted word of her organization has finally reached them through the efforts of teams encouraging registration with FEMA.

Collins and McDaniel say the government and supporting local agencies may be able to provide more than they realize. One woman, who thought assistance could not help her, reported a need for pots and pans, and Collins is trying to replace them for her. Storm victims can also apply for a disaster food stamp program, extended by the Department of Agriculture to 22 counties designated for individual disaster services.

How to get help

Moreover, FEMA will help all the seniors who need it, regardless of how many apply. "Our message to them is: You're not taking away from another person," says Mike Stone, a FEMA spokesperson for relief work in Alabama. Older adults can apply up to 60 days after the disaster occurs by going to FEMA's website, calling FEMA's hotline at 1-800-621-3362 or going to any of the more than 30 disaster recovery centers. FEMA employees are also on the ground going door-to-door.

FEMA and state agencies are also emphasizing that accepting assistance funds will not compromise benefits from Social Security or Medicaid. "Grants for housing and other needs assistance are not counted as income in determining eligibility for any income-based benefit programs funded by the U.S. government," according to a recent FEMA news release.

Stone says it's important for seniors to keep as many options open as possible. "You might not know your total status at this point," he says. "So go ahead and make that call and register. You can decide later how far ahead you want to go with it or not."

Sam Petulla is a writer in Washington.

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