The new normal means more disasters and more demand for FEMA assistance. We need innovation.
In scale, if not total destruction, we’ve seen the beginning of new normal in the amount of families impacted by weather events. No doubt, Katrina destroyed more homes (more than one million) but last week’s freeze in Texas impacted more families. FEMA expects more than 15 million applications, compared to 2.4 million for Katrina and 900,000 after Harvey.
Thankfully, the increased scale that we’re seeing is also accompanied by increased and improved technical solutions that could speed the recovery process. There is a “way” for improvement. Now we need to see if there is a “will.” Hopefully, our government prioritizes outcomes over fidelity to a traditional process. It is what our country needs and what our people want.
There are two ways that FEMA and HUD can utilize technological solutions to save money, reduce bias and expedite the disaster recovery process.
First, FEMA, HUD and SBA could create a OneApp approach — as SBP is suggesting to Congress. Instead of applying separately to FEMA, SBA (where citizens are sent to apply in order to receive full assistance) and HUD, citizens could apply once to a common application that collected all relevant information for the three agencies.
To make things even simpler, this OneApp could be pre-populated with IRS information. This solution would not only save time and funds, but it would also benefit people who hate asking for help in the first place and people who don’t self-advocate well. We all know people who see themselves as helpers, not as the ones needing help. A OneApp approach would prevent these folks from having to muster the courage three separate times to admit to another human that they need help.
Second, FEMA can leverage technology — just like insurance companies currently do — to radically improve the method through which it provides compensation for loss. Currently, FEMA uses a person-dependent model. Prior to COVID, damage assessments occurred in-person, via work by contractors who are paid on a per-house basis, with no penalties or incentives tied to accuracy. Quite humanly, damage inspectors don’t always get it right, especially when they are incentivized by volume. Further, it must be noted, in-person assessments, especially when accuracy and consistency are not incentivized or measured, are vulnerable to unconscious bias.
Currently, FEMA conducts most damage assessments via phone, in which homeowners self-report. We applaud the intention behind this new model. Unfortunately, results are not great. Further, this model is still person-dependent, requiring the time and money of a large and expensive workforce.
FEMA could take a cue from the insurance industry, especially when faced with disasters of increasingly large scale — like what we’re seeing in Texas, where time matters. Insurance companies use fly-over and satellite imagery to calculate some portion of damages. Inside the house, insurance companies utilize smartphone capabilities to calculate cost of repair.
Disasters large and small will be with us for the foreseeable future. More than 96 percent of Americans live in counties recently hit by disasters. Now is the time to champion innovation and equity in the disaster recovery process. This year, unfortunately, will hold more disasters that impact more communities. HUD and FEMA: There are clear ways to harness technology to meet the current demand, and we’re looking to you to show the will.