The Biden Administration has an opportunity to bring more equality to this year’s disaster season
Late last year, FEMA’s National Advisory Council released an assessment of the agency’s work, concluding that the current distribution of disaster aid increases economic inequality. The bottom line: Black families lose net worth in areas where FEMA funds are heavily invested while white families increase their net worth in areas of FEMA investment.
The Biden Administration could see the recent report as a burden; a reflection of a prior administration. Or, they could use this courageous report — written by a bi-partisan group of largely non-partisan state and national leaders — as impetus for real change. Further, the Biden administration could choose to see the findings not as an indictment of FEMA’s impact, but as reason to set new goals — and build the mechanisms to achieve those goals — for our country’s system of disaster recovery.
The National Advisory Council report cites several ways that FEMA’s well-intended policies help some communities while unintentionally hurting others. The time is right for a wholesale reimagining of disaster resilience and recovery.
The past decade’s seemingly never-ending and year-round disaster cycle — fires, floods, tornados — have left 90% of American counties impacted by a federally declared disaster over the decade
Here are some timely changes that the Biden Administration can make that would immediately address the unintended — but multiple-administration long — widening of racial disparity caused by policy decisions that could be improved.
The report points out that for communities to receive infrastructure and recovery funds, they must come up with a “match” of those funds, often 25 percent of a large amount. There is a complex and time-consuming process to apply for community-wide FEMA funds that HUD ultimately distributes. This process rewards communities that have larger teams and those that can hire code-deciphering expensive consultants.
The complexity and time-consuming application process for communities also applies to individuals and families. In two of the most important — and lengthy — applications, FEMA Individual Assistance and Small Business Administration (SBA), more than 50% of the questions are duplicates.
Combining these two applications into a single one creates a simpler path for survivors and increases efficiencies between agencies collecting and verifying the same information. We already have an example of this with the FAFSA application college students all over the country fill out each year. Additionally, information collected in this single application can be used when HUD Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding starts to become available for eligible households, through states and cities, typically about two years after the disaster occurs.
Those with fewer resources, people who live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have significant savings, are further set back by the delays that come with disaster recovery.
Funds can start to arrive up to 18 months post-disaster, though they don’t hit critical velocity for quite a while after and can take years to complete. More than three years after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, only 2,000 homes have been completed using these funds with 6,000 more to go.
States and cities may choose to use a reimbursement methodology as part of their plan for administering HUD funds. This method of funds distribution works well for people with means — if you qualify, you can self-fund the repairs needed, and seek reimbursement when the city/state is ready to run its recovery program. But for those who can’t self-fund needed repairs, “normal” is still a long way off.
One option to bring more equality to this process would be create a structure/mechanism that would allow lower-income people to utilize this effective pathway. A fund could be created that would use philanthropic and private funding to underwrite loans for eligible homeowners. Homeowners could then avail themselves of the reimbursement pathway once cities/states begin their recovery programs. This model could reduce the time it takes for low-income households to rebuild by at least 3 years and, importantly, start the recovery process sooner, preventing additional social and economic costs that accrue while homes sit damaged and uninhabited
One of the studies cited in the report points to the fact that white people living in counties “that sustained major disaster damage saw their personal wealth increase, while Black, Hispanic and Asian people in heavily damaged counties lost wealth.” While myriad reasons drive this devastating result, one of the likely contributing factors to this has to do with the subjectivity of FEMA damage assessments which, as they are human-based, are subject to unconscious bias. This, too, is a multi-administration long issue.
The insurance industry commonly uses aerial imagery, predictive analytics, and estimation technology that allow claims to be adjusted and paid more quickly. If fully utilized by FEMA, this method of assessment can drive a more detailed understanding of the damage to homes and communities in hours and days instead of weeks or months. It could also standardize assessments, basing reports on quantifiable information instead of subjective perception.
Fixing broken systems involves first being able to clearly articulate the problems that need to be addressed. FEMA’s trusted advisors, by way of last year’s annual report, have provided a clear path for change that the administration should take when it comes to addressing inequality.