On Thursday, financial adviser Ray Martin addresses the most immediate concern of all: accessing cash.
There are hundreds of ways for hurricane victims to receive financial assistance. Here are the largest, most common options that will be easiest for people to access immediately.
FEMA's $2,000 Debit Card
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's public information office in Washington, D.C., every head of household whose primary residence was in the disaster zone is eligible for a $2,000 debit card. It does not matter if you have insurance or if you're well-to-do. FEMA figures that everyone has immediate needs such as basic clothing and food. The hope is that the victims with the most needs will use the money to get out of shelters and back on their feet. Although you don't have to be in a shelter to receive a debit card, the government plans to begin distribution in Houston's Astrodome.
If you are in a different shelter or even a different state, FEMA can wire the money electronically to your bank account or hand deliver a check to you. Any head of household who had a primary residence in the affected area can receive financial assistance. All you need to provide is your name, Social Security number and address. (See note below.)
FDIC's Toll Free Hotline To Access Own Funds
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is trying to allow people access to their money in case they don't have a checkbook or ATM card. It has a toll-free, 24-hour hotline: 1-877-ASKFDIC. The FDIC also said displaced people can open accounts at the local bank branch where they are temporarily living without the usual documentation and paperwork.
If you don't have access to your bank's ATM or a bank branch, many institutions are waiving their ATM fees for non-members, increasing daily cash withdrawal limits and loosening restrictions on cashing checks.
If You Have Insurance
The next place to turn for money is your insurance company. Almost anyone with homeowners or renters insurance can receive emergency benefits immediately. According to Martin, many people don't realize their policies include money for temporary or emergency living expenses, often referred to as the "loss of use" benefit. Typically, this money is a percentage of the coverage amount you have for your house — usually around 15 percent or 20 percent of that amount, Martin says.
At this point, your insurer is probably expecting your call. Explain your situation and find out exactly what emergency costs the insurance will cover. Because of the enormity of Katrina, Martin says homeowners can expect to receive the money coming to them immediately. Expect the insurance company to issue you a "claim card," similar to a debit card, but with a set spending limit. You can use the card anywhere to buy anything you need.
In terms of receiving money to replace your home and other belongings, the big insurance companies are already in place to help. If you are allowed to be in your home or neighborhood, chances are that your insurance company has adjustors ready to evaluate any claims. For instance, Allstate already has 1,800 adjustors and managers working in the areas destroyed by Katrina.
One final note about insurance: all companies seem to be delaying or suspending payments for 30 to 90 days. Be sure to ask about this when you call.
If You Don't Have Insurance
FEMA has another assistance option for you called IHP — The Individuals and Households Program. The program provides money for temporary housing, home repairs and replacement, auto repairs and moving and storage. Martin believes it's the best option for people not covered by insurance. IHP will not cover all of your losses, and it's not designed to restore your damaged property to pre-hurricane condition. It's also hard to say how long you'll have to wait for this money. The FEMA Web site says it could take between 10 and 20 days, although the government continues to say it's trying to provide aid as quickly as possible.
To apply for the money, head to www.fema.gov or call 800-621-FEMA (800-621-3362). FEMA also has a variety of processing sites across Louisiana and Mississippi.
NOTE: The $2,000 debit cards are connected to this program. The government realized that it takes several days to process the IHP application and wanted to get money to victims sooner. So, when you do apply for this money, keep in mind that you already have $2,000 of what you are eligible to receive.
Finally, don't forget about your regular source of income. Many companies are continuing to pay displaced employees. If your company is not one of them, look into applying for unemployment benefits through your state. In Louisiana, you cannot receive unemployment benefits if you are/were self-employed or work for a not-for-profit. This is a fairly standard restriction.
If you aren't eligible for the benefits, you can apply for Disaster Unemployment Assistance through the Department of Labor. The amount of money you'll receive each month varies, but you can get it for up to 26 weeks following the storm. Check out www.dol.gov or call 800-621-3362.