Biden grants Whitmer's request for major disaster declaration. What that means for flood victims

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
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Washington — President Joe Biden on Thursday granted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's request for a major disaster declaration for Michigan after severe and damaging rains and flooding in southeast Michigan in late June, the White House said.

Biden's declaration will make available federal funding to affected individuals in the counties of Washtenaw and Wayne and will bring more staff from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Michigan to help facilitate the aid.

The assistance could 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 flood damage.

Whitmer this week estimated that as many as 68,000 applicants might be eligible for approximately $180 million in federal individual or household assistance based on preliminary assessments. She told FEMA that "almost none" of the affected households have insurance that would cover typical flood damage.

The White House said federal funding will also be available on a cost-sharing basis for hazard mitigation measures, which can help state and local governments with flood reduction projects.

“President Biden’s declaration opens up critical resources to help Michigan residents recover from this disaster,” Whitmer said in a Thursday statement.

"The flooding on June 25-26 had devastating impacts on Wayne and Washtenaw County residents who suffered damage to their homes, loss of personal property and faced unimaginable stress. With the resources we will receive thanks to President Biden’s leadership, we will put Michiganders first and help our communities recover and rebuild.”   

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called the announcement "great news" for Detroit and noted that Biden's declaration came in half the time of a similar declaration for damage sustained from area flooding in 2014, permitting residents to get help faster. 

"The city will support FEMA setting up operations in Detroit immediately," Duggan said. "Residents and businesses with flood damage should immediately apply for FEMA reimbursement."

Those who sustained losses in the two counties can begin applying for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling (800) 621-FEMA (3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.

FEMA advises people without flood insurance who are seeking federal aid to take photos of their damaged home and belongings as well as make a list of damaged and lost items before applying for assistance.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said Biden understood the extent of the damage from the beginning and had promised her that his administration would "do everything they could to help people."

"In Dearborn alone, my police and fire chiefs tell me they have documented damage in more than 12,000 homes," said Dingell, who represents parts of Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

"What’s important is that people have realistic expectations of what this means. They need to understand how they apply, and that it’s not going to cover everything. This is one tool in the toolbox to help people who are really hurting now."

FEMA aid options

Local governments and lawmakers said FEMA is expected to further detail the types of aid and the specific process for affected residents to follow when they seek relief in the next few days.

Help from FEMA's individual assistance program can include a variety of aid for losses not covered by insurance. This can include financial assistance for homeowners or renters to temporarily rent a place while a home is uninhabitable due to flooding, but only for those lacking insurance coverage for temporary housing. 

Sometimes, FEMA will reimburse homeowners or renters for hotel expenses for short stays when a home is not accessible or the water and power are out, according to the agency.

Financial help is also sometimes available for eligible homeowners so they may repair damage to their home that is not covered by insurance or measures to mitigate future damage.

According to FEMA's website, this aid might include money for hazard mitigation projects, such as roof, furnace, water heater or main electrical panel mitigation, if those items were damaged during the disaster.

FEMA's program may also cover basic or necessary expenses for "serious needs" directly caused by the disaster, such as child care, medical, funeral or burial expenses and damages to essential household items (including furniture or appliances) and clothing; heating oil or gas, clean-up items, damage to an "essential" vehicle, and moving or storage expenses caused by the disaster.

FEMA officials might determine that certain homeowners are eligible for aid to rebuild or begin repairs so their home is made safe and habitable, though this assistance is dependent on a FEMA inspection in cases when this housing help is not covered by the homeowner's insurance.

Housing assistance is also available on the state level for residents who are displaced or with significant home damages but it is limited. 

What prompted disaster declaration

Whitmer had written Tuesday to Biden, seeking the declaration for damage from widespread flooding that closed freeways, knocked out power to thousands of residents, drenched basements and caused sewer backups in Wayne and Washtenaw.

Some parts of the region recorded as much as 7 inches of rain over a 12-hour period between the night of June 25 and the morning of June 26, prompting a state emergency declaration from Whitmer that will be in place until July 24.

Two deaths are tied to the aftermath of the storm — an 87-year-old man who died after falling in his flooded basement and a 40-year-old utility worker who died June 29 in Detroit while responding to power outages.

Federal and local officials assessed the damage last week at the most severely affected homes and businesses. Those assessments found 194 homes with major damage, 1,632 homes with minor damage and 155 affected homes.

At least 1,946 households were found potentially eligible for temporary housing funding, 1,796 households eligible for housing repair assistance, as well as two households for housing replacement assistance and 1,941 households for an estimated $14.1 million in housing and “other needs assistance." 

"Without significant assistance from the federal government, residents will suffer financial hardships for years as they attempt to repair and restore their damaged homes to pre-disaster condition, repair or replace mechanical and electrical systems, take measures to ensure their homes are free of mold and other health hazards, and replace personal belongings," Whitmer wrote in a letter to FEMA. 

The governor noted that many Wayne County residents are still recovering from the impacts of flooding in 2014 flooding that resulted in a major disaster declaration, as well as widespread flooding in July 2016 and May 2019, when Whitmer also declared a state of emergency for the county. 

Wayne County said more than 19,000 Wayne County homes and businesses were damaged in last month’s floods, with 116 completely destroyed, 14,410 with major damage and 3,898 with minor damage.

Whitmer's letter described several homes declared uninhabitable due to the flooding, while other homeowners had to haul water and debris from their homes. Many roads flooded, requiring water rescues and later abandoned vehicles that had to later be towed from the right-of-way. 

The White House said damage assessments by FEMA are continuing in other areas of the state, and that more counties and additional forms of assistance could be designated after those assessments are done.

Whitmer has indicated she might make a separate request to include the counties of Huron and Ionia in the disaster later after assessments are completed for those areas.

That damage relates to six tornadoes that formed across southern lower Michigan on June 26, with the most damaging ones in the counties of Huron and Ionia, according to Whitmer's letter. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

Applying for aid

Those who sustained losses in the two counties can begin applying for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling (800) 621-FEMA (3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.

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