FEMA overhauls disaster aid to give people more money

By Thomas Frank | 01/19/2024 06:22 AM EST

New policies will provide tens of thousands of dollars in additional funding to survivors as disasters intensify because of climate change.

Tonya Osborne looks over the damage to her home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Tonya Osborne looks over the damage to her home in Nashville, Tennessee, after tornadoes ripped through the region in December. George Walker IV/AP

People uprooted by natural disasters will be eligible for tens of thousands of additional dollars from the federal government through sweeping changes announced Friday morning by the Biden administration.

The revisions amount to an unprecedented and costly overhaul of federal disaster aid for households and individuals, who typically receive only a few thousand dollars and often struggle to pay for emergency housing or home repairs.

“This is going to be a transformative change for these disaster survivors,” said Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The changes involve FEMA disaster aid that’s given out in the immediate aftermath of highly damaging hurricanes, wildfires and other events.


“We are eliminating red tape, expanding eligibility and establishing new benefits,” Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, told reporters.

FEMA gives roughly $2 billion a year to 1 million or more people whose lives are upended by natural disasters. But they must complete in-depth applications and navigate complicated procedures, both of which have been criticized as deterrents to seeking federal help.

One long-standing rule requires people who want certain types of FEMA aid to apply first to the Small Business Administration for a low-interest disaster loan. Only people rejected by the SBA are eligible for some FEMA grants under a policy aimed at preventing the two agencies from paying for the same projects.

Through its new policies, FEMA is removing the SBA requirement and letting people seek aid from the agencies simultaneously.

“People can apply to both agencies at the same time. We can get funding to survivors faster,” Criswell said, calling the SBA requirement “confusing and challenging.”

FEMA and SBA will coordinate their programs to try to prevent duplication.

Another change lets people receive up to $42,500 in FEMA home repair funds even if their property insurer pays for some repairs.

The expanded programs and eligibility will cost federal taxpayers $512 million a year, according to FEMA projections. The agency currently has $28 billion to spend on disaster aid through Sept. 30. Most FEMA aid helps states and localities repair public facilities such as roads and buildings and remove debris after disasters.

But FEMA projected this month that the money would be completely spent by August, during the peak of hurricane and wildfire seasons.

FEMA is implementing the changes through a procedure called an “interim final rule.” It lets agencies quickly establish changes and skip the standard regulatory process, which can take years.

The new policies will take effect March 22. FEMA may make changes afterward based on public comments.

Criswell, the FEMA administrator since 2021, said she was inspired to make the changes by talking with ordinary people at disaster sites from Mississippi to Hawaii and hearing their struggles.

“This is the result of just listening,” Criswell said.

“Mother Nature is not letting up,” she added, referring to increasingly intense weather due to climate change. “We need to be better prepared.”

FEMA’s major changes include the following:

  • Ending a policy that provides home repair money only to people who receive less than $42,500 from their property insurer.

    A new FEMA policy provides home repair funds for any uninsured damages up to $42,500. If a homeowner gets $70,000 from their insurer but has $100,000 in damages, FEMA will pay the difference of $30,000.

  • Ending a policy that pays to repair only home damage caused by a disaster.

    Under the new policy, FEMA will pay for any repairs, regardless of their cause, that are needed to make a home habitable after a disaster. If a homeowner’s roof had been damaged before a disaster and was further damaged during a disaster, FEMA will help pay to fully repair the roof.

    FEMA also will pay for accessibility improvements such as ramps for houses damaged during a disaster.

  • Ending a policy that reimburses survivors for emergency housing costs after the person provides receipts.

    FEMA’s new policy gives people who meet eligibility criteria “upfront funds” to pay for emergency housing. The funds pay for a broader range of emergency housing including staying with friends or relatives.