As thousands waited for help from the federal government after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans residents came up with their own nickname for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. The four letters of the agency’s acronym, they said, stand for “Fix everything, my ass.” As climate-related disasters intensified in subsequent decades, the agency was similarly tarred by politicians and disaster survivors from Hawaii on Vermont.
There are many points of criticism: FEMA rarely provides immediate cash assistance to people who lose their homes, instead requiring them to complete onerous housing applications which may take weeks to process. This requires many survivors to apply and be denied a loan from the Small Business Administration, a separate government agency, before they can get housing assistance. It denies them help if they already have home insurance or if their homes are damaged before a disasterand it imposes a mountain of paperwork on people who have to appeal aid decisions or who miss application deadlines.
Now, after decades of inaction, FEMA is addressing those criticisms at once. The agency announced Friday that it will fundamentally overhaul the way it provides aid to survivors, launching new programs to provide quick cash payments to those in need and eliminating much of the bureaucracy that impedes aid access.
“This is truly a transformative, deeply impactful, significant and historic change in our provision of individual assistance to survivors of natural disasters,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA. “For too long, in the face of too many natural disasters and extreme weather events, survivors have had to overcome many barriers to accessing federal assistance.”
The new rules, which FEMA says are the most significant changes to its aid process in 20 years, will go into effect at the end of March. They do not require approval from Congress, and will have a minimal impact on federal taxpayers, according to a FEMA official: The reforms will cost about $679 million a year, less than 5 percent of what the agency spent on disasters last year has.
The centerpieces of the reform are two new programs that hit the chaotic first few days after a disaster. Until now, most agency assistance has come to victims in the weeks and months after a disaster, after states have submitted a request for specific types of aid. Once they evacuate the danger zone, victims must apply for assistance with specific costs such as hotel accommodation and home repairs.
The first new policy would provide a quick cash payment of $750 to all victims of federally declared disasters, by direct deposit or check, without states having to request the money first. The second would give victims flexible upfront funding to cover about two weeks of housing, indexed to housing costs in the region, rather than having them submit long-term housing plans before FEMA would cover their expenses. A FEMA official said the information in the previously required housing plans was “not particularly informative,” suggesting that the result of the reform will be a faster deployment of funds.
The reform package would also eliminate some of FEMA’s most notorious red tape. For example, the agency is doing away with the Small Business Administration loan application requirement, which forced victims who wanted help to replace destroyed personal property to fill out an application they knew would be denied and then submit that denial to FEMA lie. It also relaxes a rule that prevents residents who had home insurance from getting help even if their insurance didn’t cover the full cost of a rebuild. And finally, the agency is eliminating a “pre-existing conditions” provision that prevented residents from receiving assistance for housing defects that existed before a disaster, such as leaking pipes or sagging walls.
It will take years for local officials and experts to determine how these reforms affect the way the United States recovers from disasters, but experts applauded the rule changes, saying they will ease financial and emotional pain for many flood and fire victims.
“These changes implemented long-standing recommendations to reduce red tape and help disaster survivors by implementing prompt payments to homeowners,” said Shana Udvardy, a policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, adding that the reforms “give disaster survivors a smoother road to recovery.”
In a press call with reporters, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said her administration has been developing the changes for several years, and that they are a direct response to past criticism from survivors, government officials and the media.
“It was the result of just listening, listening to all the concerns that survivors had, our state and local emergency managers had, and frankly, all of you,” she said.