When Disaster Strikes: Moving Back toward Normal

Without question, a natural disaster can alter your life forever. Most important, of course, is doing all you can to insure your personal safety, along with that of your loved ones and friends. But even if you and your family survive the flood, storm, fire, or earthquake, the emotional trauma inflicted by the uncertainty and the damage or loss of your property can take a toll that lasts for years.

In previous articles on September 11th and September 18th, we’ve discussed the importance of taking steps that will allow you to begin rebuilding your finances as soon as possible following the disaster. We talked about securing your most important documents so that you can begin working effectively and as soon as possible with federal and state agencies, insurers, and others. Next, we looked at establishing a priority list for whom to contact first in order to get and stay on the road to recovery.

Now, let’s consider some of the longer-term implications of financial recovery from disaster. Once the initial shock has passed and you have had a chance to both take stock of your current situation and begin working with various entities to get re-established, it’s time to look a bit farther down the road and try to anticipate both the ways the disaster has changed your life and what you can do about it.

If you were disabled as a result of the disaster, you may be concerned about the possibilities of going back to your previous employment. You should know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) offers important protections to disabled persons who work for a company that employs fifteen or more. You may be able to ask your employer for a “reasonable accommodation” in order to resume your previous duties. In such a case, you may be able to go back to work as before. On the other hand, your disability may qualify you for Social Security and other benefits. You may need to consider whether going back to work or applying for and receiving benefits is more advantageous. Information about both benefits and “back-to-work” programs for disabled persons is available at this Social Security Administration webpage.

You may have other available sources of income, such as special disaster relief funds from federal, state, and local governments. Such funds, if you receive them, are usually not taxable. You may also be able to negotiate with your employer to receive an earned bonus early, or to work overtime in order to make up some lost income. If, on the other hand, the disaster forced your employer to close or lay off workers, you may qualify for state unemployment benefits while you look for a new job (these benefits are usually taxable). You may even be able to tap into your retirement plan. In the case of permanent disability, withdrawals are not penalized. It may also be possible to utilize cash value of life insurance policies to help tide you over until your income stabilizes.

Local housing authorities can assist renters who are having difficulty with payments, and if you own your home, you may be able to work out a mortgage forbearance agreement that will allow you to make reduced or no payments for a certain period of time. If you are concerned about working successfully with your mortgage lender, you may wish to review the information at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

You may be able to find ways to reduce expenses, increase income, or both, as you construct your long-term recovery plan. If the disaster has taken you out of the workforce for some period of time, you may qualify for assistance with retraining. State employment offices offer programs for certain persons who are seeking to rejoin the workforce.

The University of Minnesota Extension service has developed a great overall resource for families and individuals seeking help for financial recovery from disaster, “Recovery after Disaster: The Family Financial Toolkit.” While this resource was developed initially for those living in Minnesota and North Dakota, it also offers many strategies that are non-state specific, including handy references to many federal agencies such as HUD, the Department of Labor, and others.

Most important of all, now–while you are on the road to recovery–is the time to make a plan for the next disaster. While we all hope that such events will never repeat themselves, one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family is to apply the steps and tactics we have outlined in this series of articles to being prepared. The best disaster preparedness plan is the one you never have to use. But if you do need it, it will be worth its weight in gold.

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