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Hurricane Victims Who Need The Most Help Have Hardest Time Getting It

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After Hurricane Harvey barreled through Kenneth Williamson’s three-bedroom home last year in the Fontaine Place neighborhood of Houston, the retired day laborer was devastated. At their height, floodwaters grazed Williamson’s knees and mold quickly developed throughout the house. His roof and floors were damaged and most of his furniture was destroyed ―and those were just some of the issues.

But Williamson, 62, was also somewhat hopeful. He figured he’d at least receive some funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help rebuild the house that had belonged to his late mother.

Williamson applied for FEMA funds and underwent an inspection. Soon after, he received a letter informing him that his request for aid had been denied. The agency claimed his home was in habitable condition, Williamson told HuffPost.

“They told me to live in it,” Williamson said. “They said it was livable.”

Williamson then turned to RipleyBaker, a nonprofit that supports low-income Houston residents. The group has been working on Williamson’s home since December and has spent over $35,000 on repairs, said Rene Solis, senior vice president of public sector solutions at RipleyBaker. But even once the organization completes the job, the home won’t be 100 percent restored to its original condition, Solis said.

Williamson’s story is a common one in the wake of natural disasters: It’s often the poorest people who struggle the most to access federal dollars after a storm hits. Housing repairs typically are the most pressing need ― and also what they have the most trouble getting. That problem is cropping up again as people affected by Hurricane Michael begin to try to put their shattered lives back together.


Scott Olson via Getty Images

“There’s never a time when people need the federal government more than when their community has been wrecked by Mother Nature,” said Marion McFadden, senior vice president of public policy and adviser on resilience at Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit that creates affordable housing opportunities. “What we see is, the people who had the lowest income, and the greatest need for support before a disaster, are the ones who are slowest to recover.”

FEMA’s responsible for coordinating government-wide relief efforts after disasters hit, which starts with offering basic necessities in the immediate aftermath and then extends to addressing survivors’ more long-term needs, including housing issues. FEMA funds help impacted residents find temporary housing and restore damaged homes, but the agency isn’t responsible for addressing every repair issue. The organization just works to make residences habitable. 

A major issue adversely affecting low-income residents is that FEMA focuses on supporting homeowners, not renters. Worsening the plight of low-income tenants is that they are often hit with rent hikes and mass evictions after a disaster.

Also, people who live in flood-prone areas but don’t have flood insurance are often denied help. And the bureaucratic process of applying ― and appealing ― is complicated.

Even when FEMA funds are awarded, it may just be a paltry amount. The agency has a cap on the amount of funds it can dole out, which varies from disaster to disaster, depending on how much damage occurred. After Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico last year and caused especially widespread damage, FEMA contributed more than $3 billion to the recovery effort.

FEMA collaborates with a number of organizations, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which, in addition to working to repair damaged homes, trains workers who can help in the recovery phase. But there’s a “huge” gap in the amount of time it takes to receive HUD dollars, McFaddon said. 

“It’s a long process,” said Solis, who added that it’s discouraging to him and his staff when they learn that a resident is denied government funding after a storm. “It frustrates us just as much as it frustrates the homeowner,” he said.

Residents hang a sign out that reads, 'FEMA Please Help Make Mexico Beach Great Again' outside their home that was damaged by


Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Residents hang a sign out that reads, ‘FEMA Please Help Make Mexico Beach Great Again’ outside their home that was damaged by Hurricane Michael. The town of Mexico Beach was particularly hard hit.

A month after Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle, residents affected it are now ensnared in a housing crisis that’s reminiscent of the one caused by Hurricane Harvey and so many other storms before it. In Panama City alone, where one in five people were already living in poverty, somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people have become homeless since the storm. In Bay County, where Panama City is located, 48,665 households have applied for FEMA aid.

Members of Florida’s congressional delegation requested that FEMA administrator Brock Long act “quickly” to approve direct housing assistance for areas affected by Hurricane Michael and to deploy resources “immediately.” 

FEMA told HuffPost in an email that part of its 2018-2022 strategic plan includes streamlining its assistance efforts. The agency said it wants to better educate survivors about the application process to help them avoid delays and also to “manage expectations” so that recipients are aware what forms of assistance FEMA and its federal partners can actually provide.

The flood insurance problem remains a major sticking point.

Of about 5 million properties in flood hazard areas, fewer than a third are insured by the National Flood Insurance Program. On average, American homeowners pay about $700 a year for flood insurance premiums. The cost of flood insurance continues to increase, however, without taking household income into account.

Without flood insurance, residents are typically out of luck when it comes to accessing federal funds.

After Hurricane Harvey, numerous residents in Kashmere Gardens, a low-income Houston neighborhood hit hard by the hurricane, were denied FEMA benefits because they didn’t have flood insurance.

“A lot of residents are still struggling over a year after the storm. A lot of people are falling through the cracks in the community,” Keith Downey, president of the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood Council, told HuffPost. “These communities were already making hard choices between food and medicine, long before this happened.”

Dorothy Rainey is pictured in her home, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Harvey, in Houston's the Kashmere Gardens neighb


Loren Elliott via Getty Images

Dorothy Rainey is pictured in her home, which was badly damaged by Hurricane Harvey, in Houston’s the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood.

In April, FEMA released a report that analyzed the cost burden of flood insurance and the populations most affected by it, and provided suggestions to help close the insurance gap.

While experts agree the report was valuable, they stress that follow-up action is needed.

“Congress gave FEMA the ability to study (the issue), but not the ability to do anything about it,” McFadden said.

McFadden, who has more than 15 years of experience in disaster recovery efforts, said the key to improving outcomes is addressing issues before a storm hits ― ensuring structures are built to withstand storms and creating tools to prepare tenants to deal with flooding and mold, for example.

She expressed optimism about some pieces of recent legislation. Congress this year awarded $16 billion to HUD solely for “mitigation” activities. That covers efforts that protect communities from damage that can be anticipated. Signed this month, the Disaster Reform and Recovery Act provides a steady stream of funding for officials to invest in better protecting their communities, instead of just relying on grants from year to year.

But changes like this are incremental, and much more needs to be done to better protect vulnerable communities, McFadden added. 

“Disaster recovery is never going to be fast. That’s the very nature of the challenge,” she said. “We need to do a better of job of making sure that the safety net reaches everybody that’s been impacted. Every community you go to that’s been through it, there’s just such tremendous frustration.”

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Ontario’s new automated speed enforcement explained

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(NC) To wage the war against speeding, many municipalities across Ontario have turned to automated speed enforcement. Most recently introduced in Toronto, speed cameras are a high-tech solution to reduce speeding and are considered one of the most effective ways to create safer roads and save lives.  

Recognizing police officers cannot catch all speeders, these cameras fill the gap, providing monitoring in specific locations around the clock. When a car’s speed is even one kilometre over the posted amount, it will take a picture of the offending vehicle’s license plate, using the captured photo as indisputable evidence. A ticket is then served to the vehicle’s owner, regardless of who was driving. 

With a focus on high-risk areas, Ontario’s automated speed enforcement cameras are located in two specific municipal areas: school and community safety zones. School zones are designated streets close to a school, featuring reduced speed limits as dictated by local bylaws. Community safety zones are high-risk corridors and intersections, subject to increased fines and penalties.  

While the Ontario Highway Traffic Act outlines the use of automated speed enforcement, municipalities can decide when and where to use cameras to curb speeding. The act does dictate financial penalties for speed violations captured with cameras, which vary depending on the number of kilometres caught over the speed limit.  

Speed enforcement is not new, but part of a broader, integrated road safety strategy that includes infrastructure improvements, awareness campaigns and new uses of technology. City officials hope for a halo effect, inspiring better driving behaviour across entire communities, not only in areas with cameras. A controversial topic, some critics take exception to speed cameras, labelling them as sneaky cash grabs for municipalities. Governments think the opposite. 

Safety advocate and auto insurance provider Onlia is hopeful that the cameras will provide drivers with a reminder to slow down, especially in high-risk areas like school and community safety zones.  

For those who obey the speed limit, automated speed enforcement shouldn’t change anything about your driving style, says Alex Kelly, Safety Ambassador at OnliaDrivers have fair warning as they approach areas with speed cameras, as mandatory signs provide reasonable notice of upcoming automated speed enforcement. Regardless of warnings, the best speed is the posted speed. 

You can start to understand your speeding style by downloading the insurance provider’s new safe driving app that coaches and rewards for you for safe driving habits.

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Online banking: How to protect yourself from fraud

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(NC) Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, a growing number of consumers are regularly using mobile and online banking to paybill payments, transfer money and make purchases.

Although these tools can give you easy access to your personal finances on demand, there are also some risks involved. For instance, your banking information—such as your debit or credit card number, user name, or personal identification number (PIN)—could be stolen. If criminals have access to your online banking information, they can steal your money, which is why it’s so important to be  vigilant when you bank online.

Follow these tips to help protect your personal and banking information:

  • For your online bank accounts, use a strong password that can’t be easily guessed, and never share your user name or password with anyone.
  • Check your accounts regularly to make sure there are no transactions you didn’t make or authorize.
  • When making online purchases, never authorize a website to save your credit card information, password or other personal information. Giving websites this permission will save you some time the next time you access the site, but it poses a real threat if a hacker manages to access your information.

Most financial institutions have policies to protect you from transactions that you didn’t make.

However, you are responsible for protecting your online and mobile banking information. If you give your details to anyone—including your spouse or partner, a family member or a friend—your financial institution may hold you responsible for any unauthorized transactions in your account, and even strip you of protection from unauthorized transactions in the future.

If you suspect your information may have been compromised, change your passwords immediately, and check your account and credit card statements for anomalies and report any suspicious transactions to your financial institution.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada has created resources to help you protect your online banking information.

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Payday loans: Not the best way to borrow money

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(NC) Payday loans are a very expensive way to borrow money. Even if you’re struggling financially, think twice—and crunch the numbers—before getting this type of loan.

Depending on the rules in your province, payday lenders can charge fees of $15 to $25 per $100 that you borrow.

As an example, let’s say you borrow $300 for home repairs. The payday lender charges you $51 in fees, or $17 for every $100 borrowed. Your loan balance is therefore $351, which amounts to an interest rate of 442 per cent.

There can be serious consequences if you don’t repay your loan by the due date. These may include the following:

  • The payday lender may charge you a fee if there isn’t enough money in your account.
  • Your financial institution may also charge you a fee if there isn’t enough money in your account.
  • The total amount that you owe, including the fees, continues to increase.

There are better options out there

Payday loans should be your last resort to borrow money. Consider cheaper ways of borrowing money, such as:

  • Cashing in vacation days or asking for a pay advance from your employer.
  • Getting a line of credit, a cash advance on a credit card or a personal loan from your financial institution.
  • Getting a loan from family or friends.

Before getting a payday loan and to avoid getting stuck in a debt trap, consider other, less expensive ways to borrow money.

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