South Mississippi residents whose homes were damaged in Hurricane Zeta are wondering why no major disaster declaration has been issued, which would make available federal funding for repairs.

A major disaster declaration can be issued quickly when damage is catastrophic because damage assessments can be waived. Category 4 Hurricane Laura’s catastrophic damage in August in Louisiana, for example, led to a quick major disaster declaration.

But Hurricane Zeta did not reach a catastrophic level in Mississippi, where the hurricane hit as a Category 1. Wind damage was widespread in the three Coast counties, including from falling trees. Some flooding also was reported, especially in Hancock County.

Emergency managers say they are completing damage assessments needed before Gov. Tate Reeves can request a disaster declaration from the president. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency is documenting damage by county for individual and public assistance.

Public assistance goes to local governments and other organizations for infrastructure repairs, not to individuals.

“We’ve just got to be patient,” said Rupert Lacy, director of Harrison County Emergency Management Agency director. “There’s been so much damage this year, as we went into this, we knew resources would be tapped. We just have to have patience.”

All three Mississippi Coast counties are on the list for potential disaster relief for individual and public assistance. MEMA does not have a final list of counties that will be included in the disaster declaration request, public information officer Kelly Richardson said.

“The final outcome of these damage assessments helps us determine which counties are included in the major disaster declaration request,” she said.

How is a major disaster declared?

After a hurricane, counties begin damage assessments. MEMA then validates those assessments and requests verification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is currently at work in Mississippi counties. Once FEMA completes its work, MEMA will draft a request for federal assistance.

Gov. Tate Reeves then signs and sends the request to FEMA and the president. Assistance becomes available once the president approves the request and declares a major disaster.

The request for assistance must be submitted within 30 days of the disaster, which in Zeta’s case was Oct. 28.

What disaster assistance might be available?

MEMA is assessing individual and public damage in South Mississippi counties for both forms of FEMA assistance.

MEMA also is putting in a request for assistance from the Small Business Administration, which would also need to issue a disaster declaration that would make individuals and businesses eligible for low-interest disaster loans in named counties and in counties bordering disaster counties.

What individual assistance is available with disaster declarations?

In counties declared eligible for individual assistance, money would be available to disaster survivors, including for temporary housing when a home is uninhabitable, repair or replacement of owner-occupied homes that serve as primary residences only if insurance benefits are not duplicated, and uninsured or under-insured expenses caused by the disaster, including damage to personal property such as vehicles.

How does one apply for individual assistance?

To apply for individual assistance, a federal disaster declaration providing the assistance must be in place.

Before applying, you should photograph the damaged property, list damaged or lost items and file an insurance claim if you have insurance.

Once these steps are completed, apply for assistance online at or call 1-800-621-3362.

What public assistance is available?

FEMA reimburses local governments at a rate of no less than 75% the cost of emergency repairs completed within six months, including debris removal, and permanent repairs completed within 18 months, including to roads and bridges, water control facilities, public buildings and contents, public utilities, and parks and recreation facilities.

Mississippi native Anita Lee graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Southern Mississippi and previously worked at the Jackson Daily News and Virginian-Pilot, joining the Sun Herald in 1987. She specializes in in-depth coverage of government, public corruption, transparency and courts. She has won state, regional and national journalism awards, most notably contributing to Hurricane Katrina coverage awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service.
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