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FEMA’s hidden deadline for Kentucky flood survivors

Susan Hall looks through binders of FEMA paperwork she’s filed and received over the past year and a half to get financial assistance to repair her home in Hindman, Kentucky, on Feb. 28, 2024.
Justin Hicks
Susan Hall looks through binders of FEMA paperwork she’s filed and received over the past year and a half to get financial assistance to repair their home in Hindman, Kentucky, on Feb. 28, 2024.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials didn’t tell Kentucky flood survivors about an 18-month deadline to appeal for financial assistance. A disaster relief organization says that’s not the only time that’s happened.

Lance Damer and Susan Hall’s home was just one of many hit by the 2022 floods that killed 45 people in eastern Kentucky.

They followed the instructions government officials repeated: Apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid to help fix your home so that it’s safe, sanitary and functional. If you don’t think the outcome is right? Appeal, appeal, appeal.

In the meantime, Damer and Hall endured a winter without heat or hot water for bathing while housing another family whose home was ruined.

“I’ve never had to struggle just to provide myself with the basic staples of existence,” Damer said. “Just to live and breathe and take a shower or stay warm.”

They think they did everything right. But like hundreds of Kentuckians still hoping for aid, they hit a deadline.

Kentucky Public Radio found FEMA did not notify Kentuckians publicly about an 18-month deadline for survivors to complete an appeal for financial assistance.

When a disaster relief lawyer from eastern Kentucky wrote an op-ed to notify flood survivors, a local FEMA official tried to have the information retracted saying there is no deadline.

When KPR asked federal officials if there is an appeal deadline, they said “I don’t think you can put it simply.”

Dozens of survivors heard a different message from a FEMA call center. KPR sat in on multiple phone calls and listened as employees explained their appeal for more money was rejected and there was no recourse.

That’s how many survivors learned about the deadline: after their cases were closed, ending their hopes for thousands of dollars in additional aid.

One disaster relief organization says FEMA doesn’t always publicly inform people about the 18-month financial assistance deadline.

FEMA officials resist calling this 18-month mark an appeals deadline. Instead, they tell survivors to focus on appealing decisions within 60 days. They say timelines look different for everyone because applications are handled on a case-by-case basis. That’s because some survivors have more complex situations than others.

“So that's why it's not fair for survivors to say, ‘What's the simple answer for this?’ Daniel Llagures, a FEMA public affairs officer said. “We [use] everything we have at our disposal to work with survivors, but [you must] follow up and talk to FEMA [and] let us know what is going on with your case so we can better serve you and help you.”

But when the deadline hits, the call center says it can’t accept paperwork and disaster relief experts say appeals are frequently denied. The agency fervently tells people to appeal — but doesn’t communicate its limits clearly. That sets survivors up for disappointment.

“I still appreciate everything they've done for me, you know, but that's just wrong,” Damer said.

Damer and Hall are engaged and live together in Hindman, Kentucky. Their home is separated from the road by a creek so small it doesn’t even show up in maps. But when flood waters ravaged Appalachian mountain towns in July 2022, their creek swelled into a deep and dangerous river.

Damer recalls the water pouring off the nearby mountain top like a “tsunami.”

“The water — when it hit — it was just unbelievable,” Damer said. “It was already halfway up on the porch to the house and it was like three feet from coming up to the top of the porch and coming into the house.”

Damer tied himself to Hall and their dog. Together they waded through the fast moving water to reach high ground.

When the flood receded, the house they had inherited from Hall’s mother needed serious repairs. They don’t make a lot of money — so they applied for help from FEMA. Within a month, an inspector came.

KPR obtained hundreds of pages of documents from the couple’s case file. In it, the FEMA inspector noted the house had shifted off its foundation and needed to be re-leveled. They also noted that the crawl space underneath was “inundated.”

“He came in and within 10 minutes of him being here, he had us $11,000 coming within like three or four days,” Damer said.

But the couple hadn’t yet realized the full extent of the damage. Once they cleared debris from under the house, they discovered ruined ductwork, pipes and electrical systems that kept their water hot and their heat running.

Lance Damer shows the damage and the repairs he's attempted to make himself to their water heater and HVAC unit in Hindman, Kentucky, on Feb. 28, 2024.
Justin Hicks
Lance Damer shows the damage and the repairs he's attempted to make himself to their water heater and HVAC unit in Hindman, Kentucky, on Feb. 28, 2024.

“So the HVAC right here is done, it doesn't work,” Damer said, pointing out the damaged systems to KPR. “The AC went first, the heater went second. The fan will blow but that’s about it.”

FEMA call center logs show they explained as early as December 2022 that those basic systems were broken. The couple struggled to get a contractor to keep their word and complete a quote to get more aid from FEMA.

A call center employee told them they have “18 months from [the] time disaster was declared to submit [an] estimate.”

Along the way, Damer and Hall enlisted the help of a legal aid group, called AppalReD – short for the Appalachian Research and Defense fund.

After getting quotes from a couple of contractors, they sent FEMA records detailing more than $20,000 in additional repairs a little more than a week before the disaster declaration was a year and half old.

At that point, they had received only about a third of the $37,900 FEMA said they could be eligible for.

Not long after, they logged on to the FEMA website to check the status of their appeal and found all their information had disappeared.

“So we called [FEMA] and they said, well, the date is gone, the books closed on that disaster, and you know, pretty much you’re beat,” Damer said.

Damer said FEMA closed their application. Case records show FEMA was working on their case right up to the deadline. They were poised to send another inspector to the home. Then the deadline hit and the appeal was eventually rejected, ending their bid for any additional financial assistance.

They aren’t the only Kentuckians FEMA rejected after the deadline, according to AppalReD disaster resource attorney Whitney Bailey.

Bailey has more than 300 clients still hoping for aid. Dozens had their appeals rejected at about the same time, she said.

She called a FEMA help line multiple times on behalf of her clients to figure out what was going on. Several times, she invited KPR to listen in on the calls.

Each time, call center employees gave a variation of the same message: due to an 18-month deadline, appeals were no longer being accepted or processed.

For Damer and Hall, a FEMA employee said they rejected the appeal because it “feels [the] applicant has already received all home repair awards they were eligible for.”

“The disaster is closed,” the call center employee said. “No further processing and no appeals will be accepted or reviewed at this point because of the financial closure.”

Handwritten signs advertise free assistance with FEMA applications after the July 2022 floods.
Justin Hicks
After the July 2022 floods in eastern Kentucky, legal aid groups and volunteers sprung into action to help survivors apply for financial assistance for temporary housing or house repairs.

Bailey had read about the 18-month period of assistance in a federal rule and was warned by another disaster nonprofit. She knew people would need help and tried to advise them in an opinion piece posted in a Lexington newspaper.

“It just makes me so nervous for everybody that we haven't been able to reach out to,” she said at the time.

But FEMA officials say Bailey at AppalReD is wrong. FEMA’s regional spokesperson for the disaster tried to get her piece retracted, but it’s still available.

That spokesperson told KPR the 18-month deadline only applies to people in temporary housing like FEMA trailers. But the agency’s own regulations appear to extend the period to all aid programs for households, including financial aid.

Their legal manual says it “primarily affects” temporary housing programs, but applies to all household aid. It explains that although the congressional act guiding disaster relief mentions the deadline in a housing context, FEMA’s own regulations apply it to financial aid programs too.

FEMA’s own call center says they won’t accept appeals, and documents show they flagged Damer and Hall’s case because a “financial period” ended.

But FEMA officials seem to waffle on the issue. They say each claim is handled on a case-by-case basis and people should appeal each decision within 60 days. This timeline gives most applicants ample time to make their case for more aid, they say.

FEMA policy also allows for appeals later than 60 days with a written explanation.

“You have a year and a half essentially to appeal the decision, so most of them are done far before the period of assistance,” Elizabeth Asche, deputy director of the Individual Assistance program said in a Zoom interview.

KPR followed up with a simple question: So, does that mean there is an appeals deadline?

“So…hmmm… ” Asche said, after a long pause.

Daniel Llargues, a public affairs officer monitoring the call, then chimed in.

“I don’t think you can put it simply,” he said.

KPR asked again later in the call: is there an appeals deadline?

“Yes…but we will go case-by-case,” Llargues said. “So yes there is –"

“The deadline for each survivor is 60 days after their eligibility decision,” Asche said, chiming in.

Craig Levy, the federal coordinating officer for FEMA’s disaster response team in Kentucky, also agreed that people seeking aid should get all their documents uploaded by 18 months.

But his team did not tell Kentuckians publicly even when FEMA did in other instances, like after a hurricane hit Pennsylvania in 2021. In that case they even called it an “appeal deadline.”

When asked why Kentucky residents weren’t notified, Levy said they rely on the media to spread press releases about FEMA processes. However, there were no press releases about an 18-month deadline for financial housing assistance programs.

Levy says if people have a problem, they can contact their elected leaders or they can message FEMA’s news desk email.

“None of us who are out here working the disaster want to see anybody not receive the aid they’re supposed to – that’s why we’re out here,” Levy said.

Kentuckians wait in a line to talk to FEMA representatives at a mobile disaster recovery center in Whitesburg.
Justin Hicks
Kentuckians wait in a line to talk to FEMA representatives at a mobile disaster recovery center in Whitesburg in August 2022, soon after the floods that ravaged the area.

A lack of clarity around this assistance deadline isn’t unique to Kentucky.

Claire Balsley works for a nonprofit called SBP. It emerged out of the need to help survivors navigate aid after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana in 2005 and has worked on numerous disasters since.

Balsley says when FEMA declares a disaster, officials know when assistance for households will end. The agency simply has to count 18 months into the future. It should just post it online alongside things they already post publicly like application windows and disaster recovery center locations, she said.

“[That’s] all really important information,” Balsley said. “But the one thing they do not state is when the disaster assistance window ends.”

Quite often, FEMA does not tell survivors about an assistance deadline, Balsley said. Meanwhile, the agency continuously encourages people to appeal. That makes some believe they can appeal forever, she said.

“Be more transparent, or more vocal,” Balsley said. “[FEMA should say] you can appeal as many times as you feel like you need to appeal to receive your maximum eligible amount of funding from FEMA up to that 18 month mark is so important. If you don't say ‘up to that 18 month mark,’ people will come to you three years down the line and say, ‘Hey, I want to appeal FEMA.’ And they can't.”

Following Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, a group of nonprofits wrote a letter to FEMA asking for an extension of an “appeal deadline.” To support their argument, they said FEMA did not provide the public with formal written notice of the deadline through a press release. FEMA extended that deadline by 90 days in that case.

In Kentucky, Damer and Hall are frustrated and looking for some clarity. They feel they’ve followed FEMA’s instructions to the best of their ability, but to no avail.

They’re now working with Sen. Rand Paul’s office to see if they can help them access aid.

Hall says at this point, all she knows for certain is that the house doesn’t meet the agency’s three basic guidelines: safe, sanitary and functional.

“This house is none of them – I’m telling you,” Hall said.

“On the exterior on the surface it looks good, but that’s cosmetic,” Damer said. “Man, it’s got issues.”

Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at
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