116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — On the morning Kim Schmadeke decided to make a final plea to the U.S. government for help, she peered out through drawn curtains at her battered neighborhood.
Trees on the ground. Tarps over roofs. More tarps over shredded sides of homes — all remnants of a freak inland hurricane that blew through on Aug. 10, 2020, tore down half the city's trees and damaged 90 percent of its homes. It was a brutal storm that was especially damaging to mobile home parks such as Kirkwood Estates, where Schmadeke lived and where, seven months later, she was the last person who had not given up on getting help Washington officials vowed in the days after the disaster.
"This ordeal is wreaking havoc on my life," she began typing on her computer, beneath a buckling ceiling. On the floor were tubs marking the areas too soggy to step. In the bathroom, the toilet was tilting because of the rotting floor and the shower had stopped working, leaving her to clean herself up at the kitchen sink.
She read back what she had typed, imagining how the words would sound to the people she was sending them to at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Does that sound stupid?" she asked. And was the correct word wreaking? Was it wrecking? "This ordeal is causing me much mental anguish," she retyped.
This was her third attempt to get help from the country's rescue team against natural disasters, which, as extreme weather events proliferate, has also become its de facto rescue team against climate change. Amid predictions of more storms, fires and floods, one of the first things President Joe Biden did after taking office was give FEMA a bigger mandate, starting with an initiative to steer billions of dollars toward protecting against climate disasters before they strike.
But the reality is that even as millions of Americans will be turning to FEMA as disasters worsen, the agency has grown significantly more restrictive with the help it gives out. Iowa is one indication of this: According to FEMA data, 22,000 people applied for aid, and 19,000 received notices telling them that they were not eligible.
Of those 19,000, Schmadeke was among the few hundred who did not take that initial no for a final answer. And now, even though she knew that most people who appealed were turned down again, she set her mind to persuading the agency that she needed its support.
"The damage to my home is mounting," she typed. "I have mold growing, water running down the walls and my front door will barely open and shut. On top of that, my toilet is sinking into the floor."
She kept typing. "Please stop playing games with me," she wrote and deleted because it might sound angry. "I feel like I have been left out to dry and am spinning in circles," she wrote and kept going for more than an hour.
She finished and reread what she had written. "That's a good letter," she said.
The agency she was writing to is one of the most crucial in times of American need. It has a budget of $24 billion and has had the same mission for 42 years: "helping people before, during and after disasters." FEMA was created after earthquakes and hurricanes made it clear that the country needed a way to coordinate emergency responses. It has grown to become the bulwark against the United States' worsening climate crisis, with major programs that provide temporary housing and grants to disaster survivors.
Independent reviews have shown that it is not an agency that succeeds in helping everyone equally. Last year, an advisory council set up by Congress found that key FEMA programs are less accessible to disadvantaged Americans, especially poor people, and that the more aid a place receives after a disaster, the more unequal it becomes as it recovers. "Through the entire disaster cycle, communities that have been underserved stay underserved, and thereby suffer needlessly and unjustly," the council found.
The council mentioned the Individual Assistance Program, which helps homeowners without adequate insurance rebuild after federal disasters. FEMA used to approve about two-thirds of applicants. But that changed after the agency came under criticism for letting fraud slip through in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In recent years, the program's approval rates have plummeted. Six million households applied for help between 2017 and 2020, and FEMA sent rejections to 4 million of them. In 2021, FEMA has approved 13 percent of applicants, its lowest rate yet.
In a news release late last month, 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.
“Fortunately, most Iowa homeowners, renters, business owners and farmers have insurance coverage for severe wind damage. Private insurance has paid more than $1.6 billion in claims as of November 2020, according to state data,” the agency said in the statement.
“What we do strive for is to provide financial assistance that can help make a home safe and secure and habitable," said Chris Smith, who directs the FEMA program.
This was the program's directive on Aug. 10, 2020, when a massive complex of thunderclouds began to gather in South Dakota on a morning that had been forecast to be clear and sunny. The sudden windstorm raced into Iowa, gathering strength as it went. By the time it darkened the noontime skies over the eastern part of the state, it was moving faster than Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Harvey, with winds reaching 140 mph. The derecho tore through the state's farmland, unwrapping metal silos, picking up and throwing tractors, and flattening millions of acres of drought-parched corn before growing stronger still and crashing into homes and apartments in Cedar Rapids ——including the mobile home Schmadeke had been taking meticulous care of for two decades.
Sixty years old now, Schmadeke had bought the trailer when she was 38, with money she saved during a short-lived job with the U.S. Postal Service. Until then, she and her daughter had been bouncing between low-rent apartments. With its two bedrooms, pineapple-stamped wallpaper and small yard where Schmadeke planted flowers, the trailer was "life-changing," as Schmadeke put it. "We moved so much, and when we moved in, it just gave us stability," she said. Her daughter lived there until she went to college, and after that, Schmadeke had lived a mostly solitary life.
When the storm rushed in, she found herself unable to stand without being knocked over. She lay gripping the couch cushions, listening to tree branches crack and bang against her roof. In a matter of minutes, her home was ruined. She remembers seeing water streaming down the walls. She remembers opening the door and seeing streets covered in torn insulation and smashed car windows.
The following night, Schmadeke was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a panic attack, her heart racing as she worried over how she would fix everything. The power stayed out for days. When it came back on, she found out that Cedar Rapids had been declared a federal disaster area, making her eligible for up to $71,000 in Individual Assistance aid.
She applied immediately and received a response the next day. "ASSISTANCE NOT APPROVED," it began. Twice more she saw the word "ineligible," then realized it was because the agency's automated system had not found proof in public records that she owned her home. So she wrote an appeal, a choice 3 percent of FEMA applicants make.
After a few weeks, she got another letter. There was no explanation this time, just a check for $48, which was followed a few days later by another check, for $1,312, also without explanation. She appealed again, saying the money was not nearly enough to cover her damage, and that resulted in another check, again with no explanation, for $2,036. But the contractors had said it would cost $9,400 to fix the roof and the bathroom alone.
Schmadeke guessed at what FEMA wanted her to do with the money. She got the branches removed, replaced the insulation so her water pipes would not freeze, and had the trailer put back on its foundation to stop its shaking. The money would not stretch far enough to fix the bathroom, though, and it was long gone by the time she was sitting at her desk with her finished appeal letter.
‘People are in crisis’
Schmadeke had grown up in a big family in Cedar Rapids, but the family had fractured, her daughter was rarely in touch, and the last time the park management asked for an emergency contact she had written, "Don't have anyone." Mostly, she spent her time watching home improvement shows, like the one playing the next day as she got ready to go to work for a taxi company. She moved about the trailer slowly. Her diabetes was making her dizzy lately. Her knee was giving out, too, and she needed surgery.
"We have to make sure everything is perfect for this family," the TV host was saying as she turned off the show, then Schmadeke was outside for the first time in days, driving past a trailer where a woman was using her nursing school loans for roof repairs, past a trailer where the storm-shattered walls were being held together with duct tape, past a trailer in which a family was living even though the home was missing an entire side, and soon she was at the small taxi dispatch office where she was looking forward to using a bright, clean bathroom.
In the weeks after the storm, there were so many instances of people being turned down by FEMA that J'nae Peterman, a program director at nonprofit, Waypoint, which deals with housing emergencies, raised the issue with a FEMA liaison. "He told me the first step is always to be denied, and then you have to appeal," Peterman remembered. She remembered him explaining the reason had to do with fraud and abuse, and her responding: "These are people in crisis. They see a denial letter, they throw it away and move on."
Peterman was far from the first person to point this out. In September 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office urged FEMA to revise its denial letters after a review found that it led people to believe that preliminary decisions are final. FEMA has not changed its process, but it has started putting out news releases encouraging applicants to appeal
Schmadeke’s appeal was headed to one of four processing centers in the Washington suburbs that deal with the thousands of people who contact FEMA every day.
Mostly, their contact comes in the form of phone calls, which can surge to more than 100,000 a day after a major disaster. But written appeals go to these centers as well, to be handled by workers who read them and, if they are persuaded that the case deserves another look call contractors and order inspections to check for fraud, then calculate new awards. The centers are an increasingly vital part of FEMA's operation.
But the agency is best known for how it shows up soon after a disaster, like it did in Iowa, where it set up six drive-through tent centers for people to file applications, including one in the parking lot of the baseball stadium where Schmadeke went to file her first appeal.
Weeks of waiting
It had been five days since Schmadeke had sent in her latest appeal. On the sixth day, she found an internet shut-off notice in her mailbox and called the company. "I've never missed a payment and the one time I'm late you're going to shut me off?" she said. The representative agreed to give her a few more days, and Schmadeke put the letter next to the overdue car insurance bill and water bill, which had tripled since her toilet began leaking after the storm.
At the one-week mark, she was back at work and got lucky with a $108 taxi fare. Internet paid, insurance paid, water bill paid. "That's something," she said.
But day after day was the same. Wake up. Clean herself at the kitchen sink. Check the FEMA site. Check the mail. Go to work. Watch a show. Then came the 26th day, when Schmadeke checked the FEMA site and saw a letter waiting for her. "ASSISTANCE NOT APPROVED," it began.
She read it slowly, then read it over again, looking for a reason and seeing nothing except that she had received "all eligible assistance for this type of loss."
Despite everything, part of her had believed that the agency would give her more help. But now she was not going to write to FEMA anymore. She was done.