FEMA announces disaster aid changes inspired by eastern Ky. flood victims
FEMA is rolling out new benefits and processes for disaster victims in March. Many hope it will simplify a complex system that’s prevented some in eastern Kentucky from getting all the help they may be eligible to receive.
The 2022 floods wrecked Wesley Bryant’s home in Shelby Gap, Kentucky, and forced him to flee with his wife and three young daughters. They’ve yet to move back in.
The bridge to their house washed away. Thick black mold grows in patches on the ceiling of their family home. Pieces of dollhouses, unicorn toys and pink clothing are strewn across the floor.
“It breaks my soul, man,” Bryant said. “It hurts. It’s home for me and to not know if we’re ever going to get back here…”
Bryant got some money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. His family spent most of it on immediate expenses. But he’s still mired in a cycle of appeals to replace the possessions his family lost.
“It’s kind of like we’ve been lost in the shuffle,” Bryant said.
Bryant’s struggle to get aid he may be eligible for is common among Kentucky’s flood survivors.
Louisville Public Media analyzed FEMA data and found that about 45% of the applications for aid related to the 2022 floods were denied aid.
But there is some cold comfort: future disaster survivors may get easier access to aid. FEMA says it’s been reforming their aid programs thanks, in part, to some of the barriers to aid they noticed in eastern Kentucky.
In the wake of the floods, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear was among a chorus of Kentuckians who criticized FEMA’s confusing aid programs.
“Thanks to the voices of eastern Kentuckians demanding FEMA do better, we are now seeing these positive changes,” Beshear said in a statement.
In all, there are about a dozen significant changes on the way. Things like more cash assistance, expanding the type of repairs allowed to homes and more flexibility on how survivors can use aid when finding an immediate place to live.
“I hope that survivors see and the community see that we're listening and that we're doing everything we can to enable a resilient recovery,” said Anne Bink, head of FEMA’s disaster response and recovery office.
“Overwhelmed and frustrated”
Whitney Bailey is the disaster resource attorney for AppalReD, a nonprofit that offers free legal aid to low-income Kentuckians. When she started working there in fall of 2022, it was supposed to be a six-month gig to help with FEMA applications. Now, it’s her full-time job.
Her office in Prestonsburg is a sea of manila file folders, each representing a family trying to get aid from FEMA. A large whiteboard plastered with color-coded sticky notes tells Bailey where each case stands.
“It’s crazy. This is one lady’s entire FEMA case file,” Bailey said, lifting a folder so thick she can barely wrap her hand around it. “I might have to get a second expandable folder just for this one client.”
New clients are still coming in, more than a year and a half after the floods. Many applied for aid and were denied.
Additional data Louisville Public Media received from a FOIA request shows only about one in four households appealed their initial decisions. About half of those appeals were from households deemed eligible for some aid.
“Every client in that initial meeting, it’s the same theme: overwhelmed and frustrated,” Bailey said. “They just went through this traumatic event and now they have to turn around and figure out what kind of paperwork they need.”
For Bailey, the changes to make FEMA’s programs can’t come soon enough. Even though most of the monetary assistance changes aren’t retroactive, changes like streamlined applications and more straightforward language in FEMA’s letters are already helping her clients.
“I'm really excited for the changes that FEMA is making,” Bailey said. “I think it'll make a huge, huge positive impact.”
The biggest changes coming to disaster assistance
Currently, many disaster victims who apply for FEMA aid are told they need to apply for a Small Business Administration loan — regardless of whether they have a business. That loan had to get denied before they were routed back to FEMA. In the future, that requirement will be eliminated.
“That’s going to be huge,” Bailey, attorney at AppalReD, said. “I have had so many clients get held up on the FEMA end because they need to go to SBA. You shouldn’t have to go to a second agency.”
Annie Bink, head of FEMA’s disaster response and recovery office, said low-interest SBA loans will still be available but part of a separate process.
“We want to still make that available to folks and continue to help explain what all of these programs can do to help enable recovery,” Bink said. But we certainly don't want to lose people in what can feel like a complicated process.”
FEMA will also create a new program called Serious Needs Assistance that is available for every disaster. Households who assert they need critical help right away will get $750 in cash assistance to help cover immediate expenses while waiting for more aid. Currently, cash assistance is only available for some disasters and only $500 per household.
“It's now automatic through the new rule,” Bink said. “So $750 can get in the pocket of a survivor sooner, I can help communities give them that kind of initial hope to recover and drive that initial recovery effort as early as possible.”
For comparison, after the floods in Kentucky, the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky granted households a minimum of $250 to households who self-attested to serious home or car damage with an additional $50 per child.
FEMA is also creating a new benefit called “disaster displacement” that gives aid to people who can’t return home, even if they have to live with family or friends for a while. For survivors with homes that were seriously damaged before the disaster, FEMA will allow aid to go towards repairs that make the house inhabitable again.
Bink said, as climate change practically ensures more deadly disasters in the future, FEMA will continue to find ways to improve their system to help survivors.
According to the Federal Register entry, these major changes should take effect for new presidentially-declared disasters starting March 22.
“This is an evolution,” Bink said. “Will we ever have a perfect system? No, but we commit to making it as good as possible so that survivors can get the cash assistance they need as soon as we can and as comprehensively as we can.”