FEMA 101 for Legal Aid Professionals

FEMA assistance can be a lifeline for disaster survivors. Learn about the legal issues involved in obtaining this assistance for them.

Page last updated: 03/24/2023


The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It coordinates federal, state, and local aid and response initiatives to alleviate the suffering and damage caused by natural disasters. For legal aid purposes, it is important to understand FEMA’s role in providing financial assistance to disaster survivors (individuals and households) and to learn how to navigate the application process.

Some key points of the FEMA programs and processes are provided below.


  • Under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, federal assistance becomes available when the president of the United States issues a major disaster declaration for an area, like a county.
  • Individuals, families, and businesses may be eligible if they live, work, or own a business in an area where the president declared a major disaster declaration.
  • Individuals or someone in their household (e.g., a dependent or another adult) must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, permanent resident, or other qualified immigrant.
  • Timing is critical: Disaster survivors must apply for assistance within 60 days of the president’s disaster declaration unless FEMA announces an extension.

FEMA Assistance

  • FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP) provides financial assistance and direct service assistance to those who qualify. The financial assistance is in the form of grants and does not need to be paid back.
  • IHP does not cover all losses caused by a disaster; it is intended only to meet basic needs and supplement other recovery efforts.
  • To prevent duplication of benefits, there is a sequence of delivery that establishes the order in which disaster relief agencies and organizations provide assistance to disaster survivors. FEMA is considered the payer of last resort. To clarify, this means that the applicant must first claim any other benefits that they qualify for before accepting FEMA funds. For example, applicants with insurance coverage must file a claim with their insurance company. They could become eligible for FEMA assistance if the insurance company denies their claim or does not provide a payment that meets the applicant’s needs.
  • IHP has two components: Housing Assistance and Other Needs Assistance (ONA)
    • Housing assistance can include providing temporary housing or financial help with rent and/or repairs. Examples of ONA include financial help for personal property replacement, child care expenses, moving, and storage costs.
    • To be eligible for some types of ONA assistance, applicants must first apply and be found ineligible for U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans. This restriction does not apply to ONA assistance for medical, dental, or funeral costs.

Application Process

These are some of the key steps in the process:

  • The applicant must apply for FEMA assistance within 60 days of the presidentially disaster declaration. This application can be completed online, through FEMA’s mobile app, by phone using a toll-free hotline, or in person at a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) or a Mobile Registration Intake Center (MRIC).
  • FEMA will usually contact the applicant within 14 days to schedule an inspection of the home. The FEMA housing inspectors do not determine eligibility; they only report the damage.
  • FEMA sends its eligibility determination by mail. This determination usually is made within 10 days of the inspection. Although, delays can be expected depending on the severity of the storm and the number of applications submitted.
  • If FEMA approves the application, the funds are deposited into the applicant’s account or mailed in the form of a check within a few days. The determination letter explains what the applicant may use the money for.


  • If FEMA denies the application or the applicant is not satisfied with the amount/the type of assistance awarded by FEMA, the applicant has a right to file an appeal. The appeal must be in writing and must be mailed or faxed within 60 days of the date marked on FEMA’s determination letter.
  • More information and resources on the appeals process can be found on our FEMA Programs and Appeals page.


The IAPPG, or Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide, is a user’s manual for navigating FEMA programs. This document is an incredibly valuable resource for  both advocates and disaster survivors, especially for appealing denials or insufficient grants.

As times change, the FEMA policies and guidelines often get updates to keep up with the law. The links here include historical versions of the IAPPG, as well as the IHPUG- the Individuals and Households Program Unified Guidance document that governed disasters from 2016 thru 2019.


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