Natural disasters unfortunately occur each year in many parts of 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.
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 Housing Choice Voucher, your assistance does not go away just because your home is damaged or made unlivable because of a natural disaster. However, make sure you can prove that your family has a valid Section 8 voucher. The documents mentioned above are your proof.
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.
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 an elderly relative, 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.
If you have pets, bring along adequate food and fresh water for your family and pets. Grocery and pet stores are likely to be closed or sold out of essentials including 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.
Make sure you have the contact information for your housing authority, landlord, property management company, property manager, or case worker. Find out who your most appropriate contact is, 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.
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.
If you live in an area where a natural disaster occurred, and need temporary housing, home repair, employment, financial, food, legal, and/or medical assistance, apply for FEMA disaster assistance as soon as possible. FEMA will confirm what types of assistance you are eligible for in your area.
How to apply for FEMA disaster assistance
You can also search for FEMA assistance by category here.
How to get help for other immediate needs
For those who have friends or family who live nearby in a safe area, ask if you can stay with them for a short time while you have no other place to live.
If you are in need of temporary emergency shelter after escaping a natural disaster, these options are available to you:
After applying, FEMA will let applicants know which services can be offered in their area. These temporary housing options may be available to you:
Individuals and Households Program (IHP)
The agency's primary housing assistance program is the Individuals and Households Program (IHP). IHP can provide the following housing assistance while you're waiting for repairs or transitioning to a permanent residence elsewhere:
The general program requirements are as follows:
FEMA’s preference is to move families from temporary lodging like motels and provide rental assistance for for moves to more stable housing like apartments. IHP assistance has maximum limits set by FEMA based on household composition and the circumstances of the households losses. IHP assistance has a time limit of 18 months. You can read more about FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program here.
Other Needs Assistance (ONA)
FEMA’s IHP program also provides Other Needs Assistance (ONA). This covers non-housing assistance such as medical, child care, and funeral assistance. Some types of assistance depend on the applicant's qualification for a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loan.
SBA-Dependent ONA Assistance:
(Can only be provided if the applicant did not qualify for a SBA disaster loan, or if their loan did not meet the applicant's needs.)
Non-SBA Dependent ONA Assistance:
Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA)
In cases where people in shelters are unable to return to their homes for an extended period because they are uninhabitable, FEMA may provide Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA). TSA pays lodging providers directly for short-term accommodations. Stays are up to 14 days but can be renewed up to a maximum of 60 days. Once families are eligible for FEMA rental assistance and suitable units identified, the move off of TSA. FEMA’s web page on Transitional Shelter Assistance provides more information.
Households receiving HUD assistance, such as those living in Public Housing or receiving Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher assistance, cannot also receive FEMA housing assistance at the same time. While a family is out of of their damaged unit, they would use FEMA rental assistance. Once they return to the repaired unit, the FEMA assistance is terminated and the HUD assistance renews. HUD-assisted households should still apply to FEMA for disaster recovery assistance because the IHP program can help with Other Needs Assistance while the family is dislocated and rebuilding.
If you lived in Public Housing before the disaster, the housing authority will work with your household and coordinate with FEMA to provide housing assistance. Most often, FEMA rental assistance will help families until they can return to their repaired public housing units. In cases where Public Housing units are too damaged to be repaired for an extended time, the housing authority may provide Relocation Vouchers.
If you lived in an apartment with Project-Based Section 8 Rental Assistance, the property’s owner has the option of renting a temporary apartment for your household and continuing to collect payments from HUD. The tenant still pays the same rent to the landlord. If the owner does not choose this option HUD will not provide the owner with Housing Assistance Payments. The tenant can use FEMA IHP rental assistance for another unit while waiting for the owner to repair the apartment or preparing to move somewhere else. If the tenant moves back into the original apartment their Section 8 assistance begins again.
What can Section 8 Voucher Holders do?
Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers may be used nationwide. 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. Read our short explanation of voucher portability here, or read more detailed information at HUD’s Portability page.
How do I find affordable housing?
If you are looking for affordable housing, but do not have a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, there may still be housing assistance available to you.
You can find housing information by searching our website here for your city, county or state. Some waiting lists have preferences for survivors of natural disasters. If you qualify for this preference you may move up the waiting list more quickly. Check with the housing authority to see if they have this preference. More information about preferences can be found here.
Project-Based Section 8
Project-Based Section 8 provides rental assistance for apartments in affordable housing communities owned by private landlords. Tenants pay a portion of their monthly income for rent and HUD pays the property owner a rental subsidy. Project-Based Section 8 owners can provide vacant units to households who are not Section 8-eligible. However, the owner does not collect the Section 8 assistance payment from HUD and the tenant would have to pay the full rent. The tenant can use FEMA rental assistance to help pay the rent in these properties. You should contact the owner or property management company to see if they will accept displaced households and FEMA rental assistance.
For more information about how to apply for Project-Based Section 8, read Affordable Housing Online’s Project-Based Section 8 Guide.
Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC)
Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) properties can house people displaced by natural disasters. LIHTC provides owners with tax credits so that they can develop apartments with rents affordable to low income households. Properties may include a mix of low-rent and market-rate apartments. The IRS allows LIHTC owners the option to seek authorization from their state Housing Finance Agencies to serve households displaced by disasters even if they do not meet the LIHTC eligibility requirements. The IRS provides the owners with regulatory waivers to make this more attractive for owners, but LIHTC owners are not obligated to accept displaced households as tenants. LIHTC properties anywhere in the country, even outside of the declared disaster areas, can use this option and provide vacant apartments to disaster survivors. You should check with the property owner or property management company to see if they will accept displaced households and FEMA rental assistance.
For more information about how to apply for LIHTC housing, read Affordable Housing Online’s LIHTC Guide.
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.
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 Press Releases page here.