Housing and Natural Disasters
Several natural disasters occur each year across the country. From earthquakes, to wildfires, to hurricanes, these disasters can result in mandatory evacuations, significant property damage, and loss of life. The most important concern for you and your family should always be safety. There are many things you can and should do before, during, and after a disaster to ensure you and your family remain properly housed.
UPDATE: For information on how to get financial assistance in disaster areas affected by the recent hurricanes read our blog post here.
Before and During a Disaster
Secure Documents, Including Housing Related Documents, in a Safe Place
In an emergency, having important documents with you may mean the difference between a smooth evacuation and lots of stress.
Housing related documents that you should have copies of include birth certificates (for everyone in your household), photo IDs, Social Security cards, your current Housing Assistance Payment contract, Section 8 voucher, renter’s or homeowner’s insurance policy, current lease, and the most recent notices from your housing authority or housing provider.
Paper copies are good, but can be forgotten in the rush of evacuation, lost or damaged. We recommend you also store electronic copies of these documents securely both on your phone or tablet and in the cloud (web based file storage) with proper backup.
You can take a picture of a document with your phone and add the pictures to free cloud services like Dropbox or Google Drive. Cloud based storage is basically another computer that is not physically in your presence. It is where you can store data, pictures, documents or anything you can save on a computer. These cloud services are secure and you can access your files anywhere you get cell phone or Internet connections.
You can also email or text message the pictures to yourself, family or friends. That way, the documents are backed up somewhere other than on your phone. If your phone were to become lost or damaged, your important documents would still be safe.
Also, make sure you have your bank account and routing numbers. If you apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), this is needed for direct deposit of any funds FEMA might award to your family.
You should also keep track of the physical documents listed above and other important info in a secure digital system, which makes that information available to you in the case of an emergency. An online spreadsheet in services like Google Sheets is a great way to manage this.
Important: If you have a Section 8 Voucher, your assistance does not go away just because your home is damaged or made unlivable because of a natural disaster. However, you want to make sure you can prove that your family has a valid Section 8 voucher. The documents mentioned above are your proof.
Gather Food and Supplies
Make sure you have enough food and water, and any necessary supplies for the entire family while you are away. Retail and grocery stores may have limited or no products available leading up to and during a disaster.
Find Emergency Housing
It’s very important to find a safe place to weather out the natural disaster if you have the opportunity to evacuate in time.
If you are fortunate to have friends or family in an area outside of the impacted area, tell them to get ready for a visit. Use this as an opportunity to visit your elderly mom upstate or your long lost friend from college.
If you don’t have friends or family you can stay with or don’t have the time to arrange that visit, make sure you know what shelters are available in your area. Pay attention to government officials directives on evacuation. Shelters are usually made available very early and local governments are usually very good at getting the word out on what shelters are available.
During the disaster, you can text SHELTER and your Zip code to 43362 (4FEMA) to locate the shelter closest to you. If you call 311 or 211 for information, these systems may be overburdened with calls after the disaster. Be patient. You should only call 911 if you have an immediate need for medical attention or evacuation help. If emergency 911 services are needed, that system may be taking a large volume of calls as well.
What to Do If You Have Pets
If you have pets, make sure you bring along adequate food and fresh water for both your family and pet. Grocery and pet stores are likely to be closed or sold out of essentials including dog food, cat food and other pet supplies.
This FEMA brochure has tips for families with pets on what to do in preparation for or during a disaster.
Shelters may permit pets, or provide a separate area to keep pets. Check with the shelter before you arrive, if you can.
Contrary to what might be rumored, hotels are not required to take your pets, unless they are service animals. Service animals are working animals, trained to complete specific tasks for persons with disabilities or special needs. Make sure you ask a hotel if they are pet friendly before booking the room. To find a pet friendly hotel anywhere in the country search BringFido.com.
After a Disaster
Keep in Contact with Your Local Housing Authority or Landlord
Make sure you have the contact information for your housing authority, landlord, property management company, property manager or case worker so you can keep in touch during and after the disaster.
Your housing authority or landlord may already have a system set up for residents to check in after the disaster has occurred. Even if your housing provider does not have this service, send them a message by phone or email. If you have to leave a voicemail message, do so. The housing authority is likely to receive a large volume of messages from residents, so only send multiple messages if there is new information, and be patient in receiving a response.
Only return to your home once any evacuation notices have been lifted.
If your home sustained damages in the disaster, take pictures of the unit after the disaster. Keep this proof for FEMA, insurance agencies, your landlord, your housing authority and other organizations.
Apply for Disaster Assistance
As soon as possible, apply for disaster assistance. To apply online, go to DisasterAssistance.gov or call 1 (800) 621-3362. Here, you can fill out a form to find out what kind of assistance is available to you, and apply directly for disaster assistance. Please be patient while your government works to help all who have been affected.
FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers are facilities that provide information about disaster assistance programs. You can search for the closest Disaster Recover Center to you here.
Moving to Another City or State After a Disaster
Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers may be used anywhere in the United States. If you decide to permanently relocate to another city or state, you will need to go through the voucher portability process. The process can be complex, but the housing authority you are leaving and the housing authority you wish to move to will both assist you in completing the transfer. Contact your caseworker to get the process started. See our short explanation of voucher portability here or read more detailed information at HUD’s Portability page.
You can find any Public Housing Authority in the country by searching our website here for the name of the housing authority, or your city, county or state.
If you want or need to move to another area, but do not have a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, there may still be housing assistance available to you. Contact your housing provider for help.
Get Emotional Support If You Need It.
If you need emotional support, you can talk to a professional at the Disaster Distress Line by calling 1 (800) 985-5990, or text “talkwithus” to 66746. Again, be patient. It might take a few moments to get the chance to speak with someone.
Be aware of con artists and scams.
In the wake of a disaster, con artists and scammers will try and profit during the confusion. You will likely see many offers of help online and by phone, often requesting a fee to facilitate processing or registration. You should ignore these kinds of offers. You never need to pay a fee to apply for federal disaster assistance. FEMA will have information on rumors for a specific disaster area on its New Releases page here.