11/04/2012 05:49 pm ET

Hurricane Sandy Survivors Wonder What's Next

POINT PLEASANT, N.J. -- Heeding word that Hurricane Sandy would be a bad storm, Daniel McGee and his girlfriend Candy Lucky raised their belongings about two and a half feet from their apartment floor here before they evacuated.

When they returned to their apartment on Thursday, they discovered that almost everything they'd left behind had been completely destroyed, as the water rose to more than three feet just blocks from the beach. Sandy had rearranged the furniture and coated the place in foul-smelling slime.

"It's a mess," McGee, 41, said after taking off an industrial breathing mask during an interview outside his ruined apartment on Thursday. "It's sad."

McGee and Lucky, 37, lack renter's insurance, and their landlord hasn't been able to reach the property's insurer yet.

"There's going to be no quick answers," McGee said. "There is so much to do here."

What happens next for Sandy survivors who've lost almost everything?

One of the first things McGee and Lucky did was to apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Lucky said a representative told them the agency would get back in touch within three to five business days to schedule an appointment to assess the damage to their apartment.

In places that the president has declared a disaster area, U.S. citizens who suffered losses not covered by insurance are eligible to receive help. FEMA's website offers a detailed description of the process. Survivors can contact the agency via phone (800-621-3362) or computer with information about their losses, income, insurance, and current and pre-disaster addresses.

People who can't live in their homes anymore because of damage, or who can't reach them because of the disaster, are eligible for "housing needs assistance" -- hotel or rent money or, if rentals are unavailable, FEMA-supplied temporary shelter. The agency also offers assistance for home repairs, cleanup costs and even medical expenses relating to the disaster.

On a conference call with reporters Saturday, FEMA director Craig Fugate said the agency generally seeks to place disaster survivors who can't go home in hotels or motels for a few weeks.

"If it turns out that you know at that point their homes are such that they won’t be able to get back into them, we’ll start looking for longer-term housing," Fugate said. "I think in many of these communities we’re going to be looking for rental properties. The housing program traditionally goes up to 18 months."

As of Sunday afternoon, FEMA said more than 182,000 people in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey had registered for assistance under the agency's "Individuals & Households" program, and more than $158 million worth of assistance had already been approved for distribution. FEMA also partners with volunteer organizations like the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross to coordinate shelter and hand out things like water and meals.

On Saturday evening, some 12,800 people stayed in nearly 200 shelters, according to the Red Cross. The agency has served more than 481,000 meals and snacks and provided more than 12,000 "health services and emotional support contacts."

Barry Scanlon, a former FEMA official turned consultant, said the maximum assistance grant is about $32,000, while the average grant is between $6,000 and $7,000.

The devastation wrought by Sandy has presented FEMA with an opportunity to repair its image. The agency's sluggish response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 infuriated residents of the Gulf Coast, who complained of red tape and general inaction. So far, FEMA has received solid marks for its post-Sandy relief efforts, garnering praise from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other politicians.

"They've already had an exemplary response to date," Scanlon said.

But for many residents as well as businesses, the extent of Sandy's damage can't even be approximated yet. Until power comes back on throughout the region, many business owners won't know what works and what doesn't, making it difficult to get moving on insurance claims. Days after the storm, many residents and business owners still hadn't been able to contact their insurance agents.

Sandy Ashen said the storm had ruined 150 cars at his Dodge dealership in Bricktown. He said that when their systems shorted out, some cars automatically opened their sunroofs and rolled down their windows, exposing interiors to soaking rain (a feature Ashen presumed allows submerged drivers to escape if they've driven off a bridge).

"Amazing," Ashen said, as a pair of insurance adjusters started their paperwork on his claims.

At the moment, Ashen has no idea what the future holds for his dealership or his employees. He has no work for his workers to do. And with power still out, the insurance adjusters can't assess the damage to the building. He said he's been in business for 45 years and never had a single weather-related loss until this devastating one.

"I don't know what's going to happen. We have a lot of people who've been here for a lot of years," Ashen said. "Who expected this? How could you? I never saw anything like this. You know what this is? This is Katrina a hundred miles long."

FEMA doesn't offer direct assistance to businesses, but both companies and individual people affected by disasters are eligible for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration.

For residents and businesses that took on water, the coming months hold a lot of uncertainty.

McGee and Lucky figure it could be weeks before they know if any of the damage to their apartment will be covered, and even longer before they have a stable living situation.

One place they won't be living is at Lucky's mother's house down the road in Mantoloking. It was completely destroyed by Sandy.

Days after the storm, the couple was still trying to figure out which of their belongings were salvageable, with a line of dank clothes hanging outside their ravaged apartment. After ruminating on their future for a bit, McGee apologized and said he'd have to cut the conversation short.

"We're losing light," he explained.

John Rudolf contributed reporting.