Lizzie O'Leary: I'm Lizzie O'Leary host of the podcast What Next: TBD from Slate. I'm in for Tanzina Vega. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, a lot of people turn to the federal emergency management agency or FEMA for temporary housing and financial assistance to rebuild their homes and communities. Recent reporting from the Washington Post found that the agency has become more restrictive in approving applications for AID.
Between 2017 and 2020, six million households applied for assistance, and four million were rejected. As the climate crisis continues and some natural disasters intensify, FEMA could play a big role in helping people get back on their feet. Whether or not the agency is going to be able to respond in a meaningful way, that's yet to be determined. Joining me now to talk about FEMA's role in providing disaster assistance is Hannah Dreier, she's a national reporter at the Washington Post. Hannah, welcome to the show.
Hannah Dreier: Good to be with you, Lizzie.
Lizzie: Let's do a quick refresher on what FEMA does after a disaster. There's emergency food and shelter, aid to cities and towns, and then there's this individual assistance program. What's it supposed to do?
Hannah: This is a huge part of FEMA's mission. This program is the program that is going to help people whose homes were destroyed, who are trying to put their lives together after a disaster. For years and years, it used to be that after a hurricane or a flood, people would apply for this help and most people would get it. They would get grants of up to about $70,000 to start putting their lives together. In the last five years or so, that's really changed and FEMA has started rejecting almost everybody who applies for that help.
Lizzie: Yes. You found that FEMA used to approve about two-thirds of applicants and they've become more restrictive when it comes to giving out this aid. What started that change?
Hannah: I was really surprised when we got these numbers from FEMA. I figured that as natural disasters get worse and get more frequent. The agency would be more generous with this aid and be doing more to get that aid out. It seems like what happened is that after hurricane Katrina, FEMA came under a lot of criticism for letting fraud slip through. As a reaction to that, the agency has now gone the other way and really makes people jump through hoops to show that they are who they say they are, that they own their home, that they live where they say they do. That proof can be really hard to come by right after a disaster. If your home has just been destroyed, how are you going to find the title to that home?
Hannah: FEMA just really wants people to prove a lot of things that are hard to prove in the aftermath of a disaster.
Lizzie: You profiled this woman named Kim Schmadeke and I was floored by her story. Tell me about her and what happened to her.
Hannah: She lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Iowa was hit by a very strange inland hurricane storm back in August. I spent a couple of weeks with Kim. She is a taxi driver in Cedar Rapids and she lives in a trailer. Her trailer was hit terribly by this storm. Now, almost eight months later, her toilet is sinking through the floor, there are holes in the floor that she's marked with buckets so she doesn't step through them. Water is still pouring down the walls from places where the roof got torn away by this storm.
She is a very low-income person. She can't afford to make these repairs. It would cost about $20,000 to repair the home. She applied for FEMA help and FEMA rejected her because she couldn't prove that she owned her home. She did the very rare thing that only about 3% of people did and she appealed that rejection. FEMA realized, "No, she does own her home," but they sent her $48 and she's looking at thousands of dollars of repairs. She's been fighting with FEMA, but her home is in much worse shape than it was a couple of weeks after the disaster.
Lizzie: I think of someone like Kim and often when we're talking about disasters, we're talking about low-income people who were hit the worst. If they try again and again, or as you're suggesting, most people just don't have either the emotional or financial wherewithal to do that. What's the toll on them when that happens?
Hannah: For Kim, It's been incredibly lonely and anxiety-provoking. She still doesn't know if she's going to end up homeless, if she's going to maybe have to move into some halfway house. She's 60 so she almost qualifies for some benefits for older people, but not quite. She's a taxi driver. I hung out with her just going around in her taxi. The thing was it felt like almost everybody in this town had some version of this story. She would pull up in front of a house where there's a tarp on the roof or side of the wall gone, or a tree still laying on the porch and she would ask how people were doing and they would have their own stories of not being able to get help from FEMA and just feeling alone and feeling in a panic.
Lizzie: Isn't helping people like this FEMA's job, how do they justify these denials?
Hannah: FEMA says that it has to balance the mandate to help people and the importance of not letting abusers take advantage of the system and steal taxpayer money by pretending to be a disaster victim.
Lizzie: Is that a big problem?
Hannah: Well, In Cedar Rapids, 22,000 people applied for help. 19,000 people were rejected. The agency says maybe 2,000 people were trying to abuse the system. So weren't really disaster survivors. I'll leave it to listeners to decide if that's a big enough percentage. For the disaster survivors what they told me is they don't want to have to jump through these extra hoops. They don't want the burden to be on them to prove that they really have this damage. They want FEMA to give them the benefit of the doubt in the aftermath of these terrible things.
Lizzie: How do lawmakers or the Biden administration respond to what seems to be strong evidence from you that households are not getting the assistance that they should be getting?
Hannah: It seems like there actually might be some action around this issue in the coming year. This is something that has been getting more difficult to get help through Republican and Democratic administrations. This administration says it's really committed to equity issues and has already asked FEMA to start reviewing these issues. Also, in the aftermath of this story, some lawmakers have been sending letters to FEMA asking them to look into this.
I think there's more prospect for change than there has been in the past. It's especially urgent because disasters are getting worse. There was a record number of major hurricanes last year. There was double the amount of disaster damage last year as the year before. This is an issue with renewed urgency.
Lizzie: Hannah Dreier is a national reporter at the Washington Post. Hannah, thank you so much.
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