Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Many government agencies help people whose lives are thrown off course, but not everyone is eligible or able to access that aid.
Recovery usually takes years.
Everyone’s experience is unique, but I’ve noticed some common patterns while researching disaster recovery. Understanding this complex process, which includes dozens of nonprofit and government programs – along with what resources are available and how aid is distributed – can benefit survivors and those who want to help them.
At first, relatives, friends and neighbors may provide basic necessities like shelter, child care, transportation, food and water. They might assist with debris removal.
Once this support dissipates, everything gets much harder – including emotionally.
Where rebuilding funds come from
Unfortunately, rising building costs and housing values have exacerbated underinsurance – leaving more people without the right kind of insurance or too little coverage. And most Americans have less than US$7,000 saved up.
Replacing demolished homes usually costs more than new construction. Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds and renovates homes for people unable to afford them, spends up to $100,000 per house. That is likely less than an individual would pay because of Habitat’s ability to get discounted supplies and its reliance on volunteer labor.
Even those with insurance covering home reconstruction must document all losses and contact insurers right away – starting what could be years of paperwork for reimbursements and applications for several kinds of aid.
Survivors can get up to $37,900 for home repairs beyond what their insurance covers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA also may provide up to $37,900 in individual assistance funds to meet other needs.
Known as IA, these funds can pay for things like child care, funeral expenses, medical costs and furniture after most federally declared disasters. Eligible expenses must be directly linked to the disaster and not covered by insurance or savings.
Survivors apply online or at disaster resource centers, which operate in local community centers, gyms or arenas. These temporary offices are one-stop shops where residents learn about and apply for government and nonprofit recovery programs.
I have seen this process frustrate or overwhelm survivors. They find FEMA paperwork grueling because of the details, records and time required.
Even if you qualify for the maximum $37,900 available in 2022, it is unlikely to fully cover rebuilding costs. And most applicants receive less than that.
Some survivors get only a one-time $500 payment from FEMA to cover what it calls “critical needs.”
After Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and Louisiana in 2017, claimants received an average of about $4,000. In addition, FEMA regularly denies claims. In those cases, FEMA asks disaster survivors for additional documentation if they wish to appeal. Survivors can also appeal to FEMA to increase the amount they were awarded.
Survivors don’t repay FEMA’s individual assistance program if they follow all guidelines, such as not using housing funds to get a car. They can also apply for a Small Business Administration loan to help cover recovery costs for their home or business.
FEMA individual assistance and SBA loan programs usually stop accepting new applications 18 months after a disaster.
People with adequate insurance coverage and enough savings – and who qualify for FEMA grants and Small Business Administration loans – often rebuild their homes as quickly as within six months and generally within two years.
Those ineligible for FEMA’s aid, or those who need more help than it offers, can turn to nonprofits.
Nonprofits step in
Many nonprofits aim to support many disaster survivors’ needs, such as housing, mental and physical health care, transportation and employment. They also help survivors file FEMA appeals.
Faith-based nonprofits like United Methodist Committee on Relief, St. Vincent de Paul, Lutheran Disaster Response and INCA Relief USA are among those providing or supporting disaster case management. Mennonite Disaster Services offers much-needed rebuilding and repairs small and large. These organizations stay in affected areas for years to walk survivors through recovery.
I study what are called long-term recovery groups. They coordinate and collaborate with local and national nonprofits to reduce the burden on disaster survivors so they don’t need to shop around for help at dozens of different organizations.
Local and state governments also play a big role. One way is through distributing the funds that originate with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program.
Priorities and eligibility for CDBG-DR aid vary for each place and disaster, and this source of assistance helps more than just homeowners. Examples include issuing forgivable loans to landlords to rebuild rental housing, rebuilding public housing, buying out properties in floodplains and providing funds to pay for the elevation of homes to make them less likely to be flooded in the future.
This funding tends to take a long time to access. In 2022, six years after Hurricane Matthew struck South Carolina and North Carolina, I participated in a study that found some survivors were still awaiting a response to their application for funds that would pay for either housing elevation or a buyout.
Some never reach the finish line
Some people never return and rebuild after a disaster.
Permanent displacement happens even in small towns after smaller-scale disasters. A research partner and I found that 12% of the houses in the town of West, Texas, weren’t rebuilt within three years of a tragic fertilizer plant explosion that upended life in that community of 2,800 in 2013.
Among homeowners, those with high incomes in predominantly white communities get more aid than others. Small Business Administration loans hinge on creditworthiness, privileging those with high credit scores and incomes. People over 65 may refuse to take on loans because they live on small pensions or Social Security benefits.
Who gets less help – or none at all
Renters get little of this aid, even though rental properties are the slowest to be repaired and rents rise after disasters because of high demand and low supply.
While nonprofits do make low-income survivors a priority, they work fastest with the owners of single-family homes. Nonprofits rarely repair mobile homes, rental units or multifamily housing like apartments and condos.
As a result, it’s up to the state and local government agencies that disburse HUD disaster funds to assist with recovery efforts for people who reside in these kinds of affordable housing.