United Methodist Committee on Relief

Facts About FEMA – And How UMCOR Fits In

A look at FEMA’s disaster recovery process and how UMCOR’s disaster ministry complements the work of government agencies.
In Moore, Okla., FEMA Disaster Survivor Assistance Team member Ritch Leone and FEMA Corps member Brandon Krueger speak with a May 20 tornado survivor.
FEMA/George Armstrong

By Susan Kim*

When disaster strikes, churches react quickly. Church members help their neighbors, and churches may open their doors as shelters. After local emergency responders ensure safe access, United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)-trained Early Response Teams are deployed in the early relief phase after a disaster.

If a disaster receives a presidential disaster declaration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) responds. But FEMA's response doesn't occur in an isolated fashion. Faith-based groups such as UMCOR, along with other voluntary agencies, work closely with FEMA to ensure that disaster survivors have the resources they need to make the best possible long-term recovery.

Before, during and after FEMA funds are distributed to eligible disaster survivors, UMCOR and other groups help the survivors consider their unmet needs, make a plan for recovery, and understand the FEMA application process. In this way, UMCOR is “first in, last out” of a disaster. UMCOR’s disaster ministries complement—rather than duplicate or compete with—governmental and other agency efforts and resources.

Below are some myths and facts about FEMA that help clarify the disaster recovery process.

MYTH: FEMA responds to all disasters.

FACT: “We don't necessarily respond to all disasters,” explained John Chavez, a FEMA voluntary agency liaison. First, a local office of emergency management assesses the damage. Then the assessment passes through the county and the state before a federal disaster declaration is considered.

MYTH: FEMA is the only agency that will offer funds to disaster survivors.

FACT: Other government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also may offer assistance. There are also other local, state, and federal assistance programs—and part of UMCOR's response is to educate disaster survivors on which of these programs are available.

MYTH: FEMA can randomly change the maximum amount of money disaster survivors receive.

FACT: During the current Fiscal Year, the maximum grant FEMA will give to an individual is $31,900. This money can be used for housing repairs or other needs. Each Fiscal Year, the federal government reconsiders that amount. In the midst of a disaster declaration, FEMA can't suddenly decide to increase or decrease that maximum grant.

MYTH: FEMA will give money to help repair someone's second home.

FACT: “It has to be your primary residence,” said Chavez. Sometimes large disasters grab national headlines but may not receive a FEMA declaration if the damage is primarily to secondary residences.

MYTH: The Small Business Administration (SBA) grants loans to businesses, not individuals.

FACT: When it comes to post-disaster situations, the SBA's name is a bit of a misnomer, since the agency offers loans to individuals. In fact, applicants for FEMA assistance must complete an SBA loan application as part of their packet. If they fail to complete an SBA loan application, their application for full assistance from FEMA is placed on hold.

MYTH: If you get a letter of denial after applying for FEMA funds, don't bother questioning the process.

FACT: “Most people stop reading when they realize they aren't initially getting money, and they neglect to read the rest of the letter,” said Chavez. “If you send us receipts, or a doctor's note, you may be able to get a positive reply from us. Maybe you need to return something to FEMA, and you may get some money.”

Your gift to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670, will help UMCOR be present from the beginning of relief to the end of disaster recovery. Please donate now.

*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to

Your gift to US Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #901670, will help UMCOR be present from the beginning of relief to the end of disaster recovery. Please donate now.