America’s Disaster Recovery System Is a Disaster
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By Samantha Montano
Photographs by Damon Winter
Dr. Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the author of “Disasterology: Dispatches From the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis.”
This summer, 12 people let me into their lives to tell me about their experiences in the aftermath of disasters, including hurricanes, floods, freezes, wildfires and derechos. All said, they did not receive the aid they expected, and the effects have been devastating. “It’s been a very humbling experience, to say the least, to go from ‘We’re fine, we just got a new house, we have a huge savings, biggest we’ve ever had’ to ‘You have nothing and you lost everything and you have to go to food pantries for food,’” said Aleasha LeClere, whose life was turned upside down by a 2020 derecho in Iowa. According to research on disasters and advocacy groups, these survivors’ experiences are very much the norm.
The help Americans receive after disasters isn’t just inadequate, it’s complicated to navigate and painfully slow to arrive. From the amount of time it takes to complete recovery — measured in years, not months — to the labyrinth of policies, regulations, false promises and lawsuits, the reward for surviving a disaster is being forced into a system so cruel it constitutes a second disaster.
So few resources are available to survivors that some become homeless or live on the brink of homelessness for years, while others have no option but to continue living in their mold-filled homes. According to a 2023 survey of people in Houston, 8 percent of those experiencing homelessness cited a disaster, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as the cause.
The emotional toll of recovery is breaking people. Researchers have found that the circumstances of disaster recovery help to explain increases in domestic violence, a range of mental health issues, worsening physical health in people with pre-existing conditions and suicide. With climate change and its effects accelerating and intensifying, this post-disaster hell is one in which more people in more places are going to find themselves. Our system isn’t ready.
Insurance was supposed to be a safety net, but as the risks from a warming world increase from North Carolina to California, major insurers are placing new limits on the kinds of hazards they cover — or leaving altogether. Government is far from ready to make up the difference. But it needs to find a way to keep up — and get significantly more money in survivors’ hands.
America’s approach to disaster recovery was designed to limit government assistance. Today many federal agencies have some role in recovery, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency is central. FEMA said that since 2015, the earliest date for which the agency could provide data, it has awarded over $158.2 billion for disaster relief and more of that funding went to public projects like removing debris, replacing infrastructure and rebuilding public buildings than to individuals in need.
This leaves disaster survivors with only their own resources, or whatever they can get from nonprofits. In 2022, the Federal Reserve found that 37 percent of Americans would struggle to afford even a $400 emergency — not enough to cover the cost of an evacuation or a month’s rent, let alone rebuild an entire life.
The federal government’s approach to recovery tends to favor wealthier homeowners — a group that skews heavily white — in part because they often have insurance and the ability to take out a loan. Renters, people who are illiterate or do not speak fluent English, people with disabilities, single parents or others with distinctive needs are less likely to get help. This is why past disaster recoveries are marked with racial discrimination lawsuits and why some neighborhoods are able to rebuild more quickly than others.
Vicki Boone, whose Lake Charles, La., house was damaged during Hurricanes Laura and Delta, has seen this play out firsthand. “The money went south of town,” to the majority white neighborhoods, she said. “The mayor took it and fixed everything” there. Meanwhile, “The Black people are still not in their houses.” Researchers have documented what she described: Although recovery in Lake Charles has been slow for everyone, the delays in home repairs have been worse in communities of color than in the majority white neighborhoods.
In the past decade, millions of disaster survivors who have applied for individual assistance through FEMA have been denied. According to a Government Accountability Office report, common justifications for denial are a lack of damage to property, lack of evidence of the damage or FEMA’s inability to inspect the property. Even when people qualify for relief, they rarely receive enough to make them whole.
Between 2010 and 2019, for example, amid disasters that devastated communities and destroyed homes, the average amount of FEMA assistance to individuals was $3,522. The maximum award this year is $41,000, which only about 1 percent of applicants receive. Some payments arrive quickly, but others come only after months of exhausting appeals.
Many survivors aren’t getting help from FEMA at all because they miss the deadline to apply while waiting to hear back from their insurance companies or because FEMA says they do not qualify.
“I sent them pictures of what my house looked like and everything, and they said it wasn’t enough damage,” said Tina George, a neighbor of Ms. Boone in Lake Charles whose roof was damaged from the two hurricanes in 2020. “Since that time, my house has really deteriorated.”
The story of U.S. disaster recovery is one of failure, but it does not have to be. As the scale of 21st-century disasters helps to reveal the inadequacy of the current approach, Congress has an opportunity to allow FEMA to give more money to more people more quickly and with fewer restrictions.
Congress let FEMA’s funding dwindle to perilous levels this year, leaving the Disaster Relief Fund with only a few billion dollars going into hurricane season. By the end of August, Deanne Criswell, FEMA’s administrator, had to halt payments to state and local recovery projects across the country to ration the remaining funds for emergency response. The fund has since been replenished, but the money will go quickly as FEMA continues its response and recovery efforts for past disasters across the country.
A common argument is that distributing disaster relief too quickly, with too little vetting, leads to fraud. But suspicions of fraud in the individual assistance program have usually ended up revealing only unintentional error. For example, cases may be flagged if someone accidentally writes an incorrect phone number down or isn’t aware that another family member has already applied for aid. In response to this small risk, FEMA has instituted extensive fraud protection measures that have made it significantly harder for survivors with legitimate claims to receive the aid they may need to recover.
While Congress bears much of the responsibility for recovery reform, FEMA could minimize the administrative burden placed on survivors. Small changes like extending application deadlines — which can range from a couple of weeks to over a year for a major disaster — until after survivors have had time to settle with their insurance companies would help more of them to access FEMA funding.
“We know we have a lot more work to do to make it easier for survivors to navigate all of these different applications and processes, but that’s something that we’re constantly asking ourselves here at FEMA,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a FEMA spokeswoman. “How do we make it easier for people? How do we get money in the hands of survivors faster?”
FEMA is only one piece of the recovery system. State and local governments need to do more to plan for recovery in advance and create state-level recovery programs. Many jurisdictions have only a part-time emergency manager, and even well-staffed agencies may not be able to address the accelerating impacts of climate-related disasters, let alone other types of growing risks, such as cyberattacks. Local and state budgets need to catch up with the realities they face today and prepare for what’s coming, with more funding and additional staff. Congress can help too, by increasing funding to a program called the Emergency Management Performance Grant, which is helping prop up local and state emergency management across the country.
We also need more transparency about who benefits from federal disaster spending and more congressional oversight of how billions of dollars in federal recovery money are being spent. An investigation after Hurricane Sandy highlighted how insurance companies made millions of dollars while systematically underpaying survivors. Some private companies profit greatly from recovery contracts. In Kentucky, for example, debris removal has run to more than five times as much as the state’s initial estimate, raising questions about the bidding process by which the contractors were selected. Finally, we need a better way to make contractors available to homeowners — and a better way to prevent predatory practices.
Those changes are the bare minimum of what must be done to create a more effective recovery system. Broader reforms to emergency management, like passing the FEMA Independence Act to move the agency out of the Department of Homeland Security and restore it to its pre-9/11 status as an independent, cabinet-level entity, would minimize the bureaucracy it has to operate within. The creation of a National Disaster Safety Board, modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, would serve as an independent investigator of the nation’s crises and be a starting point to address the federal government’s failure to make effective changes after disasters.
The recovery process we currently depend on deprives survivors of their dignity and agency and leaves them with feelings of failure, hopelessness, guilt and regret. It leaves them feeling alone. Glenn Yost, 73, had planned to retire three years ago, but recovering from the Texas winter storm of 2021 has made that impossible. Mr. Yost received only a small sum from his insurance company, to help install a new floor after the existing one was damaged by flooding, but not to fix the leaks in the walls and the water heater that blew up from the freeze. He ended up in the hospital. “I thought I was having a heart attack,” he told me. “It was all from stress.”
There is a way to create a more just recovery system for survivors, to prevent the emotional turmoil and the likelihood of falling into homelessness. If we don’t reform the system, fast, millions more Americans will find out that they too are just one flood away from losing their houses, one fire away from having to live out of their cars, one cold spell away from having their entire lives turned upside down, and that the safety nets they are counting on won’t be there to catch them.
Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and the author of “Disasterology: Dispatches From the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis.”
Additional reporting by Damon Winter and Tenzin Tsagong.
Photos of the original storm damage courtesy of the homeowners.
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