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FEMA Overhauled a Disaster Aid Program. Environmental Justice Communities Could Benefit Most


It was when the icy waters began to reach about 5 feet high that Roger Bintliff realized he needed to flee.

The veteran restaurateur, who runs a cafe in Gardiner, Maine, had brought a water pump down to the basement in an attempt to mitigate the damage. But floodwaters from a raging December storm were now rushing down the steps at an alarming rate.

“That water came so fast. It went from about 18 inches to 5 feet within two hours,” Bintliff told the Maine Monitor. “My refrigerators started floating and tipping over, blocking my doorways. I had to swim underneath them to get out and I had to abandon the pump.”

The flooding ultimately caused Bintliff $100,000 in damages, wrecking his fridges, water heater and other equipment. He then discovered his insurance policy didn’t cover flood damages. And like other small business owners in his neighborhood, he had already sunk his whole life into the venture.

But Bintliff and others in his situation could soon find it easier to access federal aid for such disasters. 

On Monday, the Biden administration published an interim rule that overhauls a major federal disaster aid program, which has become increasingly important as climate change fuels more destructive hurricanes, wildfires and other extreme weather events across the United States. The changes could be most beneficial to environmental justice communities, which are often the most vulnerable to natural disasters but lack the resources to properly recover from them.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, said the changes would streamline the application process for its Individual Assistance program, which provides financial assistance for survivors of natural disasters. The agency also said the move would increase the number of people eligible for disaster aid under the program, which now includes tens of thousands of additional federal dollars per household.

“The fact that Mother Nature is not letting up, the fact that we are breaking records year after year as disasters become deadly, more frequent and more severe—we need to be better prepared to recover from natural disasters faster and more effectively,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told reporters last week ahead of the agency’s move to finalize the rule Monday.

The new rule goes into effect March 22. Its changes include the removal of an insurance cap that disqualified property owners of aid and wider access to a one-time $750 payment meant to help survivors with immediate needs, like food, rent and evacuation costs. That payment would be in addition to aid for home repairs and other disaster-related needs. 

The rule also removes a previous requirement that forced some applicants to first apply for a low-interest disaster loan from the Small Business Administration. Only after being rejected by that loan program could applicants qualify for FEMA aid.

FEMA provides roughly $2 billion in federal disaster aid to more than 1 million Americans every year. But the agency’s assistance programs have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years for their complicated application processes, which have often resulted in a large number of applicants getting rejected and low payouts for those who managed to qualify. 

According to reporting from E&E News, FEMA’s Individual Assistance program has rejected 46 percent of its applications since 2002, while doling out an average of just $3,431 to those who did qualify for aid—an amount that is often too little to cover the numerous costs disaster survivors face, including making home repairs.

The data also showed that a disproportionate number of the rejected applicants were also likely struggling to make ends meet, with 62 percent of the people who sought disaster aid coming from “lower income” households.

FEMA’s aid programs have also been found to explicitly exclude Black Americans. In an attempt to reduce fraud, FEMA had long required applicants for disaster aid to provide a deed or other formal proof of homeownership. The policy prevented thousands of Black families in southern states from getting help after natural disasters, reporting by The Washington Post found, because more than a third of Black-owned land in the South is passed down informally—a practice that was largely established as a result of Jim Crow era discriminatory practices. The agency scrapped that requirement in 2021 amid public outcry.

Monday’s interim rule, which is part of the Biden administration’s larger efforts to address the nation’s historic inequalities, could be a big deal for vulnerable communities. By making federal disaster aid more accessible to everyone, it’s people of color and poor communities that stand to gain the most. Black Americans and low-income families are more likely to live in flood zones and have fewer resources to recover from property damage caused by extreme weather, according to recent reports and studies.

Last fall, the Biden administration released the latest National Climate Assessment, which found that census tracts with more than 20 percent Black residents will likely see a more than 40 percent increase in annual financial losses from floods by 2050, compared to the national average of about 26 percent. And a 2020 study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research Letters, found that the number of affordable housing units exposed to extreme coastal flooding in the United States is projected to more than triple by 2050.

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