What Is FEMA?

Get to know this federal organization and learn how it could benefit you if disaster strikes in your area.

Written by Melissa A. Watkins / January 18, 2022

Quick Bites

  • FEMA was created to provide financial relief and recovery services to people and communities impacted by catastrophic disasters.
  • The president needs to officially declare a state of emergency before FEMA can come into an area and offer assistance.
  • When you put in a FEMA claim, make sure you have homeowners insurance. FEMA can only cover what insurance doesn’t.
  • If you’re underinsured and worried about potential storm damage, FEMA offers flood insurance with policies available for homeowners, renters and businesses.

You’ve probably heard the name FEMA before—most likely on newscasts reporting on the latest natural disaster. What FEMA does, however, may not seem so relevant unless you’re living through such an emergency. But if you’re a homeowner or renter, it’s a good idea to learn more about FEMA even if you don’t need help right now. 

FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is an organization that coordinates the federal response to natural disasters and other crises, helping people to recover and rebuild. 

When Hurricane Ida hit in September 2021, it was the second-most devastating hurricane on record to make landfall in Louisiana (after Hurricane Katrina). Ida not only devastated Louisiana, but ravaged the Northeast as it moved up the coast, causing $95 billion in insured and uninsured losses from New Orleans to New York.[1] FEMA stepped in to help storm victims with at least $23.5 million in disaster recovery funding.[2]

In addition to disaster relief, FEMA also offers flood insurance, which is important since standard homeowners insurance policies don’t cover your home or its contents in case of flood damage due to storms. 

Whether you’re faced with an emergency right now or you want to learn more about what to do in case of one, here’s what you should know about how FEMA works. 

Inside this article

  1. What FEMA does
  2. How FEMA can help you
  3. How to apply for help
  4. FEMA flood insurance

What FEMA does

Natural disasters under the scope of FEMA’s aid include floods, fires, tornadoes and hurricanes, as well as infectious diseases. FEMA has 11 offices located across the U.S. that offer the following in the event of a disaster:

  • Emergency alert services

  • Assistance during major catastrophes

  • Emergency food and shelter programs for homeless families and individuals

  • Recovery grants and loans

  • Expenses for home repair or replacement, as well as rent coverage

  • Flood management and insurance

  • Critical expenses post-disaster (for instance, childcare, medical bills, relocation, burial assistance and more)

In order for FEMA to provide aid to a community, the president has to declare a state of emergency for that area. Although aid is available throughout the U.S., most of FEMA’s funding is designated for North Carolina, California, Florida and Texas. 

Tip: If you live in an area where floods, fires or hurricanes are all too common, you should look into preventative measures for your home. FEMA’s website offers education on how to prepare for potential disasters.

How FEMA can help you

As an organization, FEMA specializes in helping people recover from unexpected damages. Through its Individuals and Households program, FEMA can help with expenses that are not covered by your homeowners insurance, such as replacing personal items, paying for temporary rental accommodations and certain basic home repairs or disaster preparedness. If you are displaced by a natural emergency, FEMA can also provide assistance for relocating to a safe area, as well as financial assistance to help you get back on your feet. It even offers technical guides with tips on how to rescue or restore family photos, books or heirlooms that have been damaged by flood or fire.

If your home is damaged or destroyed, FEMA is usually not able to pay for all of the expenses, but it can provide some financial assistance to help you. That help comes in the form of grants, loans and flood insurance. Here’s a breakdown: 

  • Grants: Financial assistance from grants does not have to be paid back. That money is given to you free and clear.

  • Loans: Money from loans has to be repaid (but usually at a low interest rate).

  • Flood insurance: FEMA’s flood insurance has to be purchased through the organization and the premiums paid in order to make a claim if your home is damaged by flooding.

Tip: FEMA is not a primary homeowners insurance provider even though it does offer flood coverage, which is often left out of standard homeowners insurance policies.[3]

How to apply for help

Here are the steps for a homeowner or individual claiming FEMA benefits:

Check That You Qualify

In order to qualify for FEMA benefits, you need to be a U.S. citizen or a resident with verifiable identity documents. You must also have financial needs that aren’t covered by your other insurance policies, and those needs must have been caused directly by a natural disaster as defined by the agency (fire, flood, tornado, etc.). 

You don’t have to be a homeowner to qualify. For instance, if you’re a renter you may also claim benefits. But much of the assistance available is specifically for homeowners. 

Apply for Aid

You can apply for a FEMA grant or loan in several different ways. The easiest is online. A few clicks will take you to the application for FEMA aid, which will determine your eligibility and direct you to local aid providers to contact while you wait for FEMA’s response. 

As you can imagine, applying for aid requires a certain level of concentration and presence of mind that, understandably, may be difficult to have when you’ve been affected by a natural disaster. If your home is severely damaged and you’re not sure where to begin, FEMA’s Disaster Survivor crews can go onsite to assist you with your FEMA applications.

FEMA flood insurance

FEMA helps provide flood insurance to homeowners by managing the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Standard homeowners insurance often doesn’t cover flood damages, so residents would need a separate policy.

If you want to apply for flood insurance through FEMA, first visit its website to see if you live in one of the 23,000 communities that are eligible for the program. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you can apply through the website or by calling the NFIP directly.  

Tip: Flood risk may be more widespread than you think. Between 2014 and 2018, more than 40% of NFIP flood insurance claims came from outside high-risk flood areas.[4]

When you choose flood insurance, you’ll need to decide if you want building coverage, contents coverage or both. Building coverage pays for damage to the building and physical structure of your home—things like pipes, tile, floorboards, carpets and foundations. Contents coverage pays for damage to the contents of your home, such as furniture, clothing, appliances and other valuable items that are a vital part of your home but not built into the structure of the house itself.

For renters, contents coverage is ideal. Your landlord should already have building coverage in case of a flood on the property. Your landlord is not at all obligated to hold coverage on your personal property. For homeowners, building and contents coverage provide the most protection for your entire home.

Article Sources
  1. Pippa Stephens. “Hurricane Ida’s damage tally could top $95 billion, making it the 7th costliest hurricane since 2000.” CNBC.com, Sept. 8, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/08/hurricane-idas-damage-tally-could-top-95-billion-making-it-7th-costliest-hurricane-since-2000-.html.
  2. FEMA. “Federal Assistance After Hurricane Ida Tops $23.5 Million.” FEMA.gov, Sept. 1,7 2021. https://www.fema.gov/press-release/20210917/fema-federal-assistance-after-hurricane-ida-tops-235-million.
  3. “Fact Sheet: Frequently Asked Questions about FEMA Individual Assistance.” FEMA.gov, May 17, 2018. https://www.fema.gov/press-release/20210318/fact-sheet-frequently-asked-questions-about-fema-individual-assistance
  4. “Flood Risks Increase After Fires.” FEMA.gov, March 22, 2021. https://www.fema.gov/fact-sheet/flood-risks-increase-after-fires.

About the Author

Melissa A. Watkins

Melissa A. Watkins

Melissa Watkins is a former social and cultural studies lecturer who became a writer. Her financial experiences overseas and abroad include small business ownership, endless side hustles, and founding a networking organization for overseas business owners in South Korea.

Full bio

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