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'Survivors are not alone in this': FEMA offers update on its response in eastern Kentucky

Brynn Anderson/AP
A fire truck is seen hangin over the edge of the water propped against a bridge on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022, in Hindman, Ky., after massive flooding carried the fire truck towards the water. Temperatures are soaring in a region of eastern Kentucky where people are shoveling out the wreckage of massive flooding. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Some Eastern Kentucky residents with significant damage to their homes or property have been hit with a second challenge: a denial of assistance from FEMA. But the federal emergency agency is making never-before-seen changes to the way it approves claims.

"Survivors are not alone in this. We are here trying to get you the assistance. We've just got to get through the process," a FEMA spokesperson said on Monday during a media call.

FEMA representatives say their staff on the ground are working to get more assistance to those affected.

Monday, Gov. Andy Beshear announced the agency is trying out some new approaches — including granting on-site staff the ability to approve claims and launching a new texting program to try to reach more people.

That comes after the governor expressed frustration with the number of denials eastern Kentuckians were receiving. FEMA says claims can be turned down for a number of reasons beyond insufficient damage -- those range from difficulty verifying occupancy or identity to problems as simple as claimants not answering calls from an unfamiliar number. The governor said more than half of those directly contacted by the agency haven't picked up the phone.

"Thus far, FEMA has tried to call 4,006 applicants. 1,508 have picked up," Beshear noted. "We are talking to them about the numbers of times that they call, but please pick up your phone."

FEMA told reporters Monday that 63% of applicants have been awarded some level of housing assistance and 73% have received aid for other needs.

Whether the expedited claims service from FEMA and the amounts awarded will be enough remain open questions.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.