By Kirsha K.M. Durante, NHLC Litigation Director
Families affected by the Maui wildfires are still in the early stages of grief and recovery. The road to healing and rebuilding will be long, and there will be many legal questions along the way.
We are using this month’s column to address questions about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because there is a fast-approaching October 10 deadline to register for FEMA aid and we know there are many in the Native Hawaiian community that have questions about it. We want families to have the information they need to make decisions regarding FEMA and to seek help related to FEMA if they need it.
Our hearts go out to the people of Maui and all those impacted by the wildfires. NHLC is here to kākoʻo and kōkua our lāhui during this challenging time.
Should I apply for FEMA?
FEMA is optional. For families that qualify, FEMA presents a rare opportunity for individual families to receive federal money to help with recovery. If you have concerns about risks regarding registering with FEMA, contact us.
If I accept FEMA funds, will I lose my home to the government?
FEMA does not have the authority to seize land. Applying for disaster assistance does not grant FEMA or the federal government authority or ownership of your property or land.
Will the government take my land using eminent domain?
If the government attempts to seize your land this way, the landowner is entitled to notice and the right to object in a legal proceeding. During the proceeding, the government must show that the seizure is for a public purpose and that just compensation for the loss of the land is being provided to the owner. If you receive notice of an emminent domain action for your property, contact an attorney immediately for assistance.
I had homeowner’s insurance. Should I still apply for FEMA?
FEMA offers numerous categories of aid and for each category FEMA can offer different aid amounts. If you have insurance that covers a category of aid that FEMA provides, FEMA will only pay out if the insurance pays you less than what FEMA offers. If your insurance pays out an amount that is equal to or more than what FEMA can award, then FEMA will not pay out for that category. However, there are many different coverage categories in a homeowner’s insurance policy. You may not have insurance to cover certain needs that FEMA will help with, including temporary housing costs or costs unrelated to your home. To ensure you are considered for all the possible categories, it’s best to register and apply with FEMA.
I applied to FEMA and got a letter that said I was not approved. What should I do now?
Sometimes you can successfully appeal. If you disagree with the findings in the decision letter, you have sixty (60) days to appeal from the date of your letter. If you want legal help with a FEMA appeal, you should seek legal assistance as soon as possible after receiving the decision letter.
Where can I learn more and apply for FEMA?
FEMA information and an online way to apply are available at www.disasterassistance.gov/. You can also find FEMA’s information page for Maui here: www.fema.gov/disaster/4724. Guidance and information for Maui is being frequently updated. There is also information on the website regarding places to meet with a FEMA representative in-person on Maui. In addition, FEMA, NHLC, and numerous other legal providers are also regularly staffing the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s (CNHA) Kākoʻo Maui Resource Center at Maui Mall.
E Nīnau iā NHLC provides general information about the law. E Nīnau iā NHLC is not legal advice. You can contact NHLC about your legal needs by calling NHLC’s offices at 808-521-2302. You can also learn more about NHLC at nativehawaiianlegalcorp.org.
“It was a user-friendly process, and it was pretty easy. I received the $700 which was deposited quickly, as well as rental assistance. Don’t listen to everybody on social media. They’re [FEMA] only there to help, and help is all I’ve gotten from them.”
– Tawni Katayama
“I, like many others from Lahaina, was against FEMA. All the stories going around town and on social media didn’t leave a good impression about them. But my experience with Sonia completely changed my thoughts. Sonia went above and beyond to help me correct the mistakes I made on my application. She also showed compassion and was supportive. She made me feel like I knew her since hanabata days.”
– Lisha Schattenburg, Generational Native Hawaiian resident of Lahaina