116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WASHINGTON — At a time of worsening natural disasters like Iowa’s derecho last summer — and with the Biden administration leaning more heavily on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to handle crises — some in Congress are pressing the agency to explain why its approval rates for disaster survivors who apply for federal help have fallen to historic lows.
"Survivors who have lost literally everything should not have to go through a rigmarole to try to prove eligibility for often meager FEMA assistance. It's demoralizing," said Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, at a hearing last week.
"I understand the frustration," responded FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who was testifying for the first time since being confirmed in April. "I think that right now, we can do a better job of making sure our programs are easily accessible for individuals."
The pressure from Congress and pledges of reform come after the Washington Post reported this spring that the agency has cut back the help it gives out even as climate change makes disasters more frequent and devastating.
FEMA used to approve about two-thirds of people who applied for its Individual Assistance Program, which helps homeowners rebuild after disasters. But that changed after the agency came under criticism for letting fraud slip through after Hurricane Katrina. The program's approval rates have plummeted in recent years. In the first months of 2021, FEMA approved just 13 percent of applicants — its lowest rate yet.
A bipartisan group of Transportation Committee members wrote to FEMA in May, citing the Post report and asking the agency to explain what it was doing "in light of this dramatic decrease in individual assistance for survivors." The lawmakers raised concerns about computer-illiterate applicants and confusing language in the agency's decision letters. "Federal disaster programs should not ultimately revictimize individuals and families," they wrote.
The Post story profiled Kim Schmadeke, 60, of Cedar Rapids, whose trailer was torn apart by the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho. After her initial bid for help under FEMA’s Individual Assistance program was denied with little explanation, she became one of the just 3 percent of applicants who contest rejections.
In a news release, FEMA said it approved 3,084 households for more than $11.2 million in Individual Assistance grants after the derecho. It said the aid is for “basic home repairs” and temporary housing assistance, but noted FEMA is prohibited from duplicating insurance payments or aid from other programs or organizations. According to FEMA data, 22,000 people applied for aid after the derecho, and 19,000 received notices telling them that they were not eligible.
Several appeals later, FEMA awarded Schmadeke $3,396 for damage that contractors said would cost at least $14,000 to fix. By that point, she had spent seven months living with a leaking roof, a shower that wouldn't turn on and a toilet that was precariously tipping into a rotting floor. She struggled to send letters to the agency because FEMA's website requires that applicants convert Microsoft Word files into PDFs, and she didn't know how.
In response to these and other concerns voiced by lawmakers, Criswell said the agency is launching an "equity analysis" of the Individual Assistance Program. The review will focus on whether help is reaching low-income applicants. The agency also will start collecting more demographic information about people who apply for the program to foster fairer outcomes.
Separately, FEMA said it will revise the denial letter it sends to almost 90 percent of people who apply for aid. The current letter reads, "ASSISTANCE NOT APPROVED," and leaves disaster survivors with the false impression that there is nothing more they can do. The new letter will make it clearer that the rejection is not final and that applicants can still appeal. The agency expects to workshop a revised letter in focus groups this fall.
FEMA does not regularly publish denial rates, but The Post was able to report them by writing a programming script to query several years of records. In May, Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., introduced legislation that would require the agency to make the data more accessible. "FEMA has been a stealth agency that doesn't want to share information," Espaillat said. "They have to be accountable when they say, 'No.'"
In Iowa, meanwhile, where Schmadeke's trailer was fixed by a nonprofit and reader donations, Schmadeke said she hoped the agency would follow through on reforms.
"I don't think I'm the only one who should get help," she said.