Why FEMA is changing rules for disaster aid

By Thomas Frank | 01/22/2024 06:43 AM EST

Nearly 1 in 2 applicants gets rejected when seeking assistance. The Biden administration wants to expand eligibility.

Greg Knight cleans out his damaged home.

Greg Knight cleans out his damaged home in Grand Isle, Louisiana, after Hurricane Ida swept through the region in 2021. Sean Rayford/AFP via Getty Images

Two numbers help explain the Biden administration’s latest overhaul of federal disaster aid for individuals.

One: The aid program has rejected 46 percent of the people who’ve sought help since 2002, records show.

And two: Approved applicants have received an average of $3,431 for emergency expenses including home repairs.


The figures reflect the limitations of Federal Emergency Management Agency aid, the complexity of applications — and a government mindset that people whose homes have been destroyed and who have no savings must thoroughly document their need for help.

But starting in March, FEMA plans to change its rules to provide assistance to more people.

The revisions, announced Friday and detailed in a 342-page rule published Monday morning, reflect a new understanding that people in disaster areas need help and need it quickly.

“FEMA now assumes that any survivor who applies is not eligible unless proven otherwise,” said Noah Patton, manager of disaster recovery at the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“These are extremely welcome changes,” Patton added. “It’s a bit of a shift in how FEMA views its role in providing assistance and how it views eligibility.”

FEMA says its rule “will lead to a larger pool of eligible disaster survivors receiving disaster assistance funds.”

One new program, for example, will give displaced people advance money for emergency housing including staying with friends or relatives — and “will not require receipts documenting the use of this assistance.” The agency will initially verify an applicant’s eligibility and confirm their emergency housing through a visit.

Giving displaced people housing aid upfront — and for a range of accommodations — differs from the current system, which provides housing aid as reimbursement and only for costs such as hotel stays that are documented with receipts.

“Funding upfront is a sea change in how FEMA has been doing this,” said Patton, who noted that many people forced to leave home cannot afford to pay for a hotel.

The revisions are part of the Biden administration’s broader effort to address the nation’s increasing exposure to climate change and to make all types of federal aid more accessible to marginalized people.

As climate change and development have increased the destruction caused by hurricanes, floods and wildfires, FEMA has helped huge numbers of people after recent disasters. In 2022, the agency gave disaster aid to 385,000 people in Florida after Hurricane Ian and to 740,000 in Puerto Rico — nearly a quarter of the U.S. territory’s population — after Hurricane Fiona.

Since 2002, FEMA has allocated $36 billion in disaster relief to 9.5 million people, an E&E News analysis of agency records shows. The aid, designed to be limited, helps cover expenses such as emergency housing and supplies, and repairs to make a home habitable.

The new policies also illustrate how President Joe Biden and his administration are bypassing Congress to improve equity in federal programs by using regulations and executive orders.

FEMA’s aid to individuals mostly helps people who don’t have savings to pay for emergency costs or insurance to pay for home repairs. An agency survey in 2019 found that 62 percent of the people who sought FEMA aid were “lower income.”

“These changes will ensure more equitable outcomes,” House Homeland Security ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a statement.

In 2021, FEMA took major steps to help people qualify for disaster aid by revising a policy guide. The new policy, which took effect with no official public or congressional input, lets people use a wide range of documents to prove homeownership.

The expansion aims to help Black homeowners in the South — long excluded from state legal systems — if they cannot prove homeownership because they inherited property without a deed.

The latest changes take effect March 22 and bypass requirements that agencies propose new regulations and accept public comment before finalizing them. By publishing the new regulations as an “interim final rule,” FEMA can put them in effect in 60 days and make revisions after a 180-day comment period.

“FEMA is overhauling many of these policies that have been in place for decades,” said Shana Udvardy, a senior climate resilience policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They really understand we’re in unprecedented times with the climate crisis.”

The new policies do not apply to FEMA disaster aid that helps rebuild public facilities and infrastructure or to any of its grant programs.

“It’s a big opening up of eligibility,” Udvardy said. “It’s just going to be an easier process for disaster survivors to get the resources they need and get their lives back on track.”

In one major regulatory change, FEMA is removing a limitation that allows it to pay for home repairs only to damage caused directly by a disaster. The policy requires FEMA to determine how much damage to a home was caused by a disaster as opposed to something else.

FEMA will now pay for full repairs to any component damaged during a disaster, even if some of the damage preceded a disaster.

“This should have a major impact,” said Madison Sloan, director of disaster recovery at Texas Appleseed, an advocacy group. “People who were formerly being denied home repair assistance will get home assistance and be able to repair their homes and … return home faster.”

After Hurricane Harvey deluged the Houston area in 2017, FEMA home inspectors denied many home-repair applications by ruling that damage was a “pre-existing condition” or resulted from “deferred maintenance,” Sloan said.

“It’s effectively a subjective decision by inspectors with minimal training,” Sloan said. “Lower-income people, people of color were really the people getting denied housing repair assistance.”

FEMA’s rule says the agency will now “pay for pre-existing conditions if the component itself was damaged by the disaster.”

The new policy also removes restrictions on when FEMA will pay for accessibility improvements such as ramps and grab bars to disaster-damaged homes.

Hannah Perls, an attorney at Harvard Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Program, said the new policies will prevent people from returning to partially repaired homes after a disaster and will let them “return home faster because they have funding to restore their homes to a safe standard.”

The new policies will cost federal taxpayers $512 million a year, according to FEMA’s estimate. That’s 2.5 percent of the roughly $20 billion a year Congress gives the agency for disaster recovery.

FEMA said it could not quantify the benefits but said the changes “will promote more equitable access” to disaster aid and be “broad based.”

The actual effects of the new policy will depend on their implementation by thousands of FEMA workers — many of them working temporarily — at disaster sites.

“The devil’s always in the details when it comes to our country’s intricate disaster response systems,” said Patton of the housing coalition. “FEMA has to ensure these changes are being implemented all the way down through the disaster recovery center itself.”