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‘We can do better’: FEMA makes sweeping changes to speed up disaster aid

Hearing frustrations from victims, the federal agency is drastically reforming its individual assistance program for the first time in 20 years. Here’s what that means.

People walk through floodwater near interstate 10 in Houston in 2017. Flooding from Hurricane Harvey pushed thousands of people to rooftops or higher ground. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Responding to frustrations from impacted communities across the United States, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Friday that it is making sweeping changes so that more disaster victims get financial assistance faster and with fewer rules, red tape and delays.

“We can do better. Survivors deserve better,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in a call with reporters. “We are breaking records year after year with these disasters, and we need to be better prepared and informed to recover faster and more effectively.”

FEMA, a relatively small agency, largely carries the responsibility of helping states and communities recover from hurricanes, wildfires and other weather-related disasters. This includes helping people find and pay for short-term housing while their state and local governments lead recovery efforts.

The result for many victims, however, has long been a bureaucratic nightmare that bounces them between multiple agencies, often resulting in denials and delays of critical funds when they need it most. Thousands of survivors do not get adequate money to find new housing, rebuild what was broken and move forward.

As climate change has made disasters more destructive, frequent and costly, FEMA said that more victims, especially vulnerable populations, have been falling further through the cracks.

To change that, the agency will soon offer more flexible forms of assistance aimed at getting money to people faster. Criswell said that when she took the job in 2021, she started traveling to disaster zones and listening to the frustrations and criticisms from victims, nonprofits and local officials, who repeatedly highlighted how people were left for months struggling to get aid.

Experts and aid organizations say that America’s disaster response, particularly how it addresses immediate housing needs, is broken. It is getting harder for communities to get back on their feet largely because local and state governments are overwhelmed by the scale and cost of recovery, and federal resources have not filled in the gaps. Housing is the linchpin, experts say, for a community to survive and recover after a disaster.

“If people lack housing … they end up in unsafe conditions or move away. And if people stay away too long, they may not return,” said Patrick Roberts, a political scientist specializing in disasters with the Rand Corp. “One of the goals of disaster recovery is to return a community to its normal functioning, along with its schools, hospitals, businesses and essential services.”

The Government Accountability Office has criticized the federal government’s sprawling, disjointed approach, noting that such programs are spread across more than 30 federal entities. Several GAO reports have found that disaster survivors often face numerous challenges obtaining aid through FEMA’s program meant to provide for temporary housing or home repairs, and that FEMA could do a better job helping people to better understand eligibility requirements.

Hilton Kelley, an environmental and community activist in Port Arthur, Tex., has seen firsthand how his community struggled after several hurricanes battered the area in recent decades — most notably Hurricane Harvey in 2017, which flooded his own home.

He heard over and over how people had to wait months to receive any aid from the agency. They also felt FEMA’s damage assessments were too low, the paperwork too arduous and the aid too paltry, particularly compared with more affluent areas.

“A lot of folks had to move away,” Kelley said, noting that some homes became uninhabitable while awaiting repairs. “Many people felt treated unfairly. A lot of people were frustrated and disgusted. They just lost their will to fight.”

FEMA is now trying to address such complaints.

The agency’s overhaul of its Individual Assistance program includes nixing steps — such as first making states apply for a cash relief program — that often slowed and complicated federal money getting to victims. Now, its revamped Critical Needs Assistance program will automatically give eligible households $750 to help cover immediate expenses and basic necessities. It has also removed barriers for victims who applied late and has simplified its appeal process.

To make it easier for people to access housing immediately, FEMA has removed some of its documentation requirements. The agency also is doing away with what Criswell called “onerous documentation” that made victims prove they were spending their aid on rent to make them eligible for continued assistance.

Displaced victims now have the flexibility to choose where they stay, such as with family or friends, and FEMA will give them the money upfront for it instead of making them stay in specified hotels.

One longtime source of confusion was the involvement of the Small Business Administration, with the agency first having to reject a victim’s loan application before the person could get help from FEMA. That’s now gone. Victims with disabilities can also now use FEMA funds to make their homes more accessible after a disaster.

Previously, if insured residents got a certain amount of money from their carrier, they were ineligible for federal assistance, even if the payout barely put a dent in their repairs. Now, FEMA will pay up to $42,500 toward damage that insurance doesn’t cover.

“Accessibility has been a huge obstacle,” said Whitney Bailey, an attorney for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, who spends her days helping victims of flood disasters with FEMA appeals. Her clients are often baffled by trying to navigate the maze of disaster aid.

For instance, when FEMA initially rejects an aid application, many folks interpret that as the final decision. Just making more clear that isn’t the case, she said, would be significant.

“A lot of people throw their hands up when they receive this ineligibility letter. But it’s not the end,” she said. “Small changes could make a huge impact.”

Disaster response and recovery nonprofits and victims rights advocates are applauding the reforms, which some had been pushing for years. Team Rubicon, an organization that has been advising the federal government on how to streamline disaster response, said that “these changes will have immediate and significant positive impacts” when the next disaster strikes.

The rule changes go into effect March 22, meaning that victims of a disaster declared on or after that date will benefit from these reforms.

Kelley, the Texas resident, had not yet seen the details of FEMA’s new changes, but hopes some good comes from the agency’s latest actions.

“You can never really correct the ills of the past,” he said. “But you can damn sure do a better job at creating equity for future generations and helping people to survive.”

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

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