The next time a major disaster hits America, victims may not have to resort to a refugee-like exodus that takes them far from the area, as hundreds of thousands did following Hurricane Katrina.

And those who have housing available can quickly get it filled provided they are in the system.

The American Red Cross and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a partnership this week so that those forced from their homes will have speedy access to critical housing information that could swiftly put a roof over their heads.

With the refined National Housing Locator system ready to go, HUD will gain access to Red Cross shelters in the earliest stages of a presidentially declared disaster so it can begin to house eligible HUD-assisted families, the elderly and others in need.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the immediate housing shortage was perhaps the most indicting evidence that the nation was not prepared for such a disaster.

The lack of sufficient emergency housing forced hundreds of thousands of residents to flee and never to return to the Gulf Coast area.

After the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency shipped in some 120,000 problematic so-called "FEMA Trailers." About 60,000 remain in use.

Sierra Club tests of dozens of the trailers found high formaldehyde levels in 83 percent of those tested and residents complained of noxious fumes, headaches, burning eyes, running noses, asthma and other health problems in early 2006.

The Centers For Disease Control has yet to make official government tests.

Scores of trailers also remained empty and unused creating FEMA Trailer Shanty Towns that were easy pickings for vandals to strip.

What compounded matters was that the outpouring of generosity fromprivate individuals and others offering housing ( Expert Education Advice Articles Tips Nemmar Real Estate Training ), often for free, was put off by federal and emergency agencies unable to quickly integrate grassroots-generated housing into bureaucratic and non-profit systems.

Private individuals offering shelter also couldn't overlook the potential for liability (for them as property owners and for any agency approving the use of private housing, among others). Tenants' rights to perhaps stay on after property owners changed their mind and the potential for fraud or crime stemming from putting up strangers, also became issues.

Recognizing the crucial nature of housing after disaster, HUD and the Red Cross hope to change those shortcomings in time for the next Big One.

Homeless experts say a roof over your head does a lot more than provide shelter from the storm, which certainly is a good start.

A home provides a sanitary place to store and prepare food and water, bathe and groom. A home provides privacy, a place for dignified respite at the end of a long day, and a location from which to receive regular medical or emergency assistance.

A home is also an address to leave for prospective employers and others who need to reach you and it's a place where you can stay put and reconnect with family, friends and others.

"These large disasters often leave behind despair and confusion in the hearts and minds of disaster survivors. All of us who work to help these individuals must keep this in mind, and do all that we can to get the necessary services to them as quickly as possible," said Joe Becker, Red Cross Senior Vice President for Disaster Services.

HUD's line to the Red Cross during an emergency will give it the authority to help displaced residents with:

  • The National Housing Locator . The system is an outgrowth of housing assistance efforts and lessons-learned following Hurricane Katrina. It was finalized earlier this year to combine federal housing resources with those of several commercial apartment locators and housing websites. The one-stop emergency housing locater is up and running at all times and can be used by anyone, but properties are often rented or sold based on certain income and need requirements.
  • Immediate foreclosure relief. Once the President declares a major disaster, HUD issues a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures and forbearance on foreclosures of Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-insured home mortgages;
  • Making mortgage insurance available. HUD's Section 203(h) program provides FHA insurance to disaster victims who have lost their homes and face rebuilding or buying another home. Borrowers are eligible for 100 percent financing, including closing costs.
  • Making insurance available for both mortgages and home rehabilitation . HUD's Section 203(k) fixer-upper loan program enables those who have lost their homes to finance the purchase or refinance of a house along with its repair through a single mortgage. It also allows homeowners who have damaged houses to finance the rehabilitation of their existing single-family home.

More information about disaster assistance from HUD is available on line.

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