FEMA under pressure to explain low rate of disaster relief

19,000 of the 22,000 requests after the rejection of Derecho

FEMA under pressure to explain low rate of disaster relief

Kim Schmadeke writes a card on March 10 in her derecho-damaged trailer at Cedar Rapids. She was one of only 3% of FEMA aid applicants who contest their denial of help under the Individual Aid program. (Daniel Acker / Washington Post)

WASHINGTON – At a time of worsening natural disasters like the Iowa derecho last summer – and with the Biden administration relying more on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to manage crises – some in Congress are lobbying the agency to explain why its approval rates for disaster survivors who seek federal help have fallen to historically low levels.

“Survivors who have literally lost everything shouldn’t have to go through a scam trying to prove their eligibility for often meager FEMA assistance. It’s demoralizing,” said Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., President of the FEMA. House transportation subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, at a hearing last week.

“I understand the frustration,” replied FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell, who was testifying for the first time since her confirmation in April. “I think right now we can do a better job of making sure our programs are easily accessible to individuals.”

Deanne Criswell, then a candidate for the post of trustee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, testifies on March 25 during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Drew Angerer / Pool via AP)

Congressional pressure and promises of reform come after the Washington Post reported this spring that the agency cut aid it provides even as climate change makes disasters more frequent and devastating.

FEMA used to approve about two-thirds of people who applied for its Individual Assistance Program, which helps homeowners rebuild after disasters. But that changed after the agency was criticized for letting the Hurricane Katrina fraud pass. Approval rates for the program have plummeted in recent years. In the first months of 2021, FEMA approved just 13% of applicants, its lowest rate yet.

A bipartisan group of Transport Committee members wrote to FEMA in May, citing the Post’s report and asking the agency to explain what it was doing “in light of this dramatic decrease in individual aid to survivors “. Lawmakers have raised concerns about computer illiterate candidates and confusing language in the agency’s decision letters. “Federal disaster programs should not ultimately re-victimize individuals and families,” they wrote.

The Post’s story featured Kim Schmadeke, 60, of Cedar Rapids, whose trailer was torn apart by the August 10, 2020 derecho. After her first offer of help under the Individual Assistance Program FEMA was turned down with little explanation, she became one of only 3 percent of applicants who challenge the rejections.

In a press release, FEMA said it approved 3,084 households for more than $ 11.2 million in individual assistance grants after the derecho. He said the aid is for “basic home repairs” and temporary housing assistance, but noted that FEMA is prohibited from duplicating insurance payments or assistance from other programs or organizations. According to FEMA data, 22,000 people sought help after the derecho and 19,000 received notices telling them they were not eligible.

Several appeals later, FEMA awarded Schmadeke $ 3,396 for damage that the contractors said would cost at least $ 14,000 to repair. By this point, she had spent seven months living with a leaky roof, a shower that wouldn’t open, and a toilet that fell precariously on rotten ground. She struggled to send letters to the agency because the FEMA website requires applicants to convert Microsoft Word files to PDFs, and she wasn’t sure how.

In response to these and other concerns expressed by lawmakers, Criswell said the agency was launching a “fairness analysis” of the individual aid program. The review will focus on whether the assistance reaches low-income applicants. The agency will also begin to collect more demographic information on people applying to the program in order to foster more equitable outcomes.

Separately, FEMA has said it will revise the denial letter it sends to nearly 90 percent of those seeking help. The current letter reads “ASSISTANCE NOT APPROVED” and leaves survivors with the false impression that there is nothing more they can do. The new letter will make it clearer that the rejection is not final and that applicants can still appeal. The agency expects to prepare a revised letter to focus groups this fall.

FEMA does not regularly publish rejection rates, but The Post was able to report them by writing a programming script to query several years of records. In May, representative Adriano Espaillat, DN.Y., introduced legislation that would oblige the agency to make data more accessible. “FEMA has been a stealthy agency that doesn’t want to share information,” Espaillat said. “They have to be held to account when they say ‘No’.”

In Iowa, where Schmadeke’s trailer was fixed with donations from a nonprofit and readers, Schmadeke said she hoped the agency would follow up on the reforms.

“I don’t think I’m the only one who needs to get help,” she said.

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