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Disaster Victims Fail to Seek Aid

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

When the storms hit Alabama in late April, some older adults came up from their basements to find neighbors' cars rammed through the side of their homes by tornadoes. For some, that signaled a time to hunker down — not to reach out to the government for help.

See also: A year after Tennessee flood, AARP hosts disaster forum.

Irene Collins, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Senior Services, is worried that older people are not registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which provides disaster relief assistance. "Last week the numbers were low," she says. "We did not have as many as we anticipated."

In Tuscaloosa County, only 250 older adults or people with disabilities have registered at FEMA disaster recovery centers. Disaster relief leaders say they expected to see numbers in the low thousands. Collins says she is concerned that older people may find themselves stuck with bills for repairs that their insurance does not cover.

The Alabama Department of Senior Services is one of a number of organizations working alongside FEMA as it scrambles to get in touch with shocked storm victims and begin the rebuilding process. They're seeing it all, including older people who have had their dentures sucked from their mouths by the twisters.

Self-reliance gets in the way

Collins says she is having the same trouble registering that her colleagues in other states have run up against in the past: Older people often think somebody else is worse off.

"We had a senior who came to a community assistance area, and they had clothes and toothbrushes," Collins says. "The woman only took one pair of jeans and one shirt. She had nothing. And we said, 'We have plenty. Here, take something else.' The woman said, 'Oh no, somebody else will need it more than I do.' "

Field workers and local government officials say the attitude seems to be generational, stemming from a sense of pride in making it on one's own. "A lot of these seniors have lived through hard times before," says Lauranne James, the lead case manager for Medicaid waivers for the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments, who has been on the ground in some of the areas the tornadoes hit hardest. "They made it, and they did it without government assistance."

Another issue is the effects of displacement. "There's not a lot of available rental property," says Keith Jones, executive director of the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments. "We have a lot of homes that were totally destroyed. These folks who have lost their homes have gone to family members out of the disaster area. They're not signing up." He also added that home mailboxes were destroyed, which prevented residents from receiving notices about FEMA assistance.

James and Jones also fear that lack of access worsens the problem. Older adults may not have access to their computers, or local computer centers may have been knocked out. "So you run into a little bit of a communications problem where all we have is the local radio stations, which are in other cities," James says.

Next: Here's how to get help. >>

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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