SBP’s clients illustrate racial disparities in disaster recovery in the New York Times
Last week, the New York Times profiled the experiences of two of our clients in the disaster recovery system, illustrating the racially disparate impact tied to key FEMA processes. Inaccurate damage assessments and cumbersome processes lead too many Americans to be pushed to their breaking point. Chris Flavelle’s piece is important not only for what it illustrates but also to give an administration, which has said it is committed to racial equity, an opportunity to understand — and then fix — challenges that are all too real for many Americans.
The piece also shared the results of our work in southwest Louisiana in helping survivors of Hurricanes Laura and Delta appeal their initial FEMA awards. It’s a complex, individualized, advocacy process where we’re often interpreting old award letters, helping survivors gather additional estimates they may need to make their case and filing multiple appeals on their behalf. None of our clients in this process have yet had an appeal denied.
So far we’ve worked with 33 families on the FEMA appeals process. 11 families have received more money; 28 are still in the pipeline, still hoping they’ll receive the funding needed — now ten months after the storm — to rebuild their homes. This year’s hurricane season began June 1 and too many individuals and families are still in limbo from last year.
After a disaster, when faced with the burden of having to rebuild their damaged homes, families experience financial and emotional trauma that can cause irreversible damage. SBP believes that three factors — in their presence or absence — impact the chance of people being pushed beyond what they believe they can withstand. These factors are: 1) the time between disaster and recovery; 2) how much predictability they have or do not have; and 3) their access to support. All of those factors come to the surface in the New York Times story, and all of them influence why, though we’re proud of the rebuilding work that we are doing in disaster-impacted communities across the country, we’re also working hard to prevent the need for that work and working in areas of resiliency, advocacy and policy as well. Every aspect of our advocacy agenda was created with equity in mind, knowing that communities of color have faced disproportionate challenges in our current disaster recovery system.
All of our rebuilding work in southwest Louisian includes FORTIFIED roofs, which means those roofs will be more resilient, better able to withstand strong winds in the future. If the roof stays on, it’s more likely the home will stay dry inside. We’re also pushing Congress for a transferable resiliency tax credit as part of the infrastructure bill. A transferable credit would mean that resilient upgrades in low-income areas — where personal funding may already be a challenge — can be privately financed by a variety of investors with social and financially aligned interests.
FEMA damage assessments themselves have long been problematic, using methods easily subject to assessor bias and their perceptions of a home or neighborhood. Insurance companies use satellite and flyover imagery among other tech to accurately assess damages in days instead of months. This is a faster and more equitable approach where decisions are made based on consistent photographic evidence instead of a subjective opinion. FEMA could integrate already existing technology to increase efficiency and equity in their damage assessments. Pushing for more equitable assessment measures would go a long way in maintaining housing value for minority communities.
Currently, disaster recovery assistance often takes 3+ years to begin helping low income disaster survivors make permanent repairs to their homes. The creation of a Recovery Acceleration Fund (RAF) could decrease the time between disaster and home repair by allowing qualified low-income homeowners to access a pool of social impact and charitable funds for their repair work. This would provide so much more predictability to disaster survivors’ recovery process.
All of these ideas, some already in the works with members of Congress and other organizations, point to a more efficient and equitable disaster recovery process so that no one is pushed to their breaking point.