(MCT) — PHILADELPHIA—Even as President Barack Obama, Gov. Chris Christie, and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate toured the storm-ravaged coast of New Jersey on Wednesday, victims of Sandy started seeking federal aid.
FEMA workers began going door to door in coastal towns to register residents unable to apply by phone or over the Internet because of continuing power outages. Wednesday was the first day for storm victims to apply for assistance.
“What we want to do is get them rental assistance and give them a place to stay,” Fugate said as he flew with Obama to Atlantic City.
Residents of Atlantic, Cape May, and Ocean Counties are eligible for immediate assistance under Obama’s disaster declaration. Residents of other undesignated counties can also apply for assistance, and FEMA assessors will determine whether they qualify, spokesman Matthew Behnke said Wednesday.
Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.
More counties and additional forms of assistance may be designated after FEMA’s on-the-ground assessments are completed, said Michael J. Hall, the federal coordinating officer for recovery operations in the affected area.
In Brigantine, Obama told residents, “I just want you to know that we’re going to be here for the long haul. Director Fugate, he’s been at this for a long time. ... We’re going to make sure that we get the help to you as quickly as we can.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters at a Washington briefing the president had sent the same message to federal officials in charge of the recovery: “Get resources where they are needed as fast as possible without excuses or delay.”
About 2,200 federal workers, as well as 7,400 National Guard troops, are working in New Jersey and 15 other storm-ravaged states, Napolitano said.
“We understand people are anxious to return home, but there are still many hazards out there, and we don’t want people in harm’s way,” she said.
Napolitano said she expected the $3.6 billion available in FEMA’s disaster relief fund would be adequate for Sandy response efforts.
Touring flood-damaged Sayreville in Middlesex County on Wednesday morning, Christie assured residents FEMA offices soon would be open in their neighborhood and in others hard hit by Sandy.
When some residents complained that FEMA had not treated them appropriately after Hurricane Irene hit last year, Christie said: “Don’t you worry about it. I’ll be with the president this afternoon, and the head of FEMA.”
A disabled great-grandmother, Dolores Beaton, 62, asked Christie to go into her home. He took her hand and led her through a huge puddle up onto her porch. Inside, furniture was toppled over and the house smelled like mildew. Wet bills were lying on a table. She said the recliner that she sleeps on had been ruined.
“Everything’s gone,” she said. “I can’t replace anything. I have no money.”
Christie told her he would make sure FEMA opened an office in Middlesex County to get her the help she needed.
Storm victims can apply for FEMA assistance by phone, on the Web, or by smartphone:
FEMA also will set up disaster-recovery centers where applicants can go for assistance information. The locations for those centers will be determined soon, Behnke said.
FEMA assistance is not to duplicate private insurance, and residents are expected to file appropriate claims with their insurance carriers, Behnke said.
The process of getting federal aid may be long, said Philadelphia lawyer Marc Tepper, an expert in insurance law who represented the government of the U.S. Virgin Islands in FEMA claims after Hurricane Marilyn in 1995.
Patience is key in dealing with FEMA, as reimbursements may take weeks or months, and initial assessments can be lower or higher than eventual payouts, said Tepper, of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.
FEMA notes that its disaster assistance “is meant to help you with critical expenses that cannot be covered in other ways. This assistance is not intended to restore your damaged property to its condition before the disaster.”
The maximum for a FEMA grant for individuals and households is $31,900.
After a resident applies for assistance, a FEMA inspector will be assigned to assess damage and determine what assistance the resident qualifies for. Then a check can be issued, or in the case of business owners, a referral made to the Small Business Administration for low-interest loan assistance.
These are the kinds of assistance FEMA and other federal agencies can supply:
Rental payments for temporary housing for those whose homes are uninhabitable. Initial assistance may be provided for up to three months for homeowners and at least one month for renters.
Grants for home repairs and replacement of essential household items not covered by insurance to make damaged dwellings safe, sanitary, and functional.
Grants to replace personal property and help meet medical, dental, funeral, transportation, and other serious disaster-related needs not covered by insurance or other federal, state, and charitable aid programs.
Unemployment payments up to 26 weeks for workers who temporarily lost jobs because of the disaster and who do not qualify for state benefits, such as self-employed individuals.
Low-interest loans to cover residential losses not fully compensated by insurance. Loans available up to $200,000 for primary residence; $40,000 for personal property, including renter losses. Loans available up to $2 million for business property losses not fully compensated by insurance.
Loans up to $2 million for small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, and most private, nonprofit organizations of all sizes that have suffered disaster-related cash-flow problems and need money for working capital to recover from the disaster’s adverse economic impact. This loan in combination with a property-loss loan cannot exceed $2 million.
Loans up to $500,000 for farmers, ranchers, and aquaculture operators to cover production and property losses, excluding primary residence.
(Inquirer staff writer Matt Katz contributed to this article.)