As Climate Shocks Worsen, FEMA Tries a New Approach to Aid


The Biden administration is overhauling the country’s disaster assistance programs, expanding aid for survivors of hurricanes, wildfires and other catastrophes and making it easier to access.

The shift, announced on Friday by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, comes amid a growing number of climate-related disasters. It follows years of criticism surrounding the agency’s aid programs, which experts have said are insufficient, too hard to access and disproportionately benefit wealthier and white Americans.

“Survivors deserve better,” said Deanne Criswell, the FEMA administrator. “We’re connecting people with the help that they need on their worst day.”

The changes include wider access to an immediate $750 payment after evacuating a home and for other urgent needs, more housing assistance for people who can’t return home right away, easier access to money to repair and improve homes, and reduced paperwork.

Those changes would especially help renters and people with low incomes, according to Frank Matranga, who runs the agency’s aid programs for disaster survivors. And because people in those groups are more likely to be people of color, the changes should reduce the racial inequity in federal disaster aid, he said.

About one million Americans each year receive some sort of direct aid from FEMA, according to the agency.

In addition to the $750 payment per household, FEMA said it would create a new program, called Displacement Assistance, to help people who need to stay in hotels, or with friends or family. Weather-related disasters pushed more than 3.3 million American adults out of their homes in 2022, census data shows. Of those, at least 1.2 million were displaced for a month or longer.

FEMA is also ending one of its most criticized rules, which requires disaster survivors seeking assistance to first apply for, and be rejected for, a loan from the Small Business Administration, regardless of whether they own a small business.

“We heard that survivors found it confusing and challenging to apply for an S.B.A. loan,” Ms. Criswell said.

Han Nguyen, a spokesman for the Small Business Administration, said in a statement that the agency “applauds FEMA’s decision.”

FEMA said it would also make it easier for people whose homes had been damaged to get money to rebuild. And if a home requires upgrades for people with disabilities — for example, adding a ramp to the front door — FEMA would pay for those changes.

In another change, disaster survivors who are self-employed and whose tools are lost or damaged would be able to get money to replace that equipment.

The agency is also streamlining existing programs. Disaster survivors who miss the agency’s application deadlines will no longer need to provide documents showing why their application was late. And it will be easier for people who are turned down by FEMA to appeal, the agency said.

The changes are expected to take effect by the end of March.

The agency said it expected the new policies to increase federal disaster costs by $512 million a year. That comes as the agency has already seen its disaster spending increase significantly. Between 1992 and 2004, FEMA spent an average of about $5 billion annually from its disaster fund, federal data show. Between 2005 and 2021, the average amount was about $12.5 billion annually.

Despite the Biden administration’s record spending to protect communities from weather shocks, the toll from disasters around the United States is all but certain to keep growing. That’s not just because global emissions continue to rise, triggering more extreme weather, but also because Americans keep building homes in vulnerable places like coastlines and fire-prone areas.

The changes announced on Friday reflect another fundamental shift, according to Craig Fugate, who led the agency during the Obama administration: The erosion of insurance.

FEMA was initially designed to supplement insurance coverage. When disasters happened, people were meant to turn first to their homeowners’ insurance, including government-provided flood insurance, to cover the cost. FEMA’s programs existed mainly to fill the gaps left by that insurance.

But a series of changes have made that model less workable, Mr. Fugate said. Rising housing costs mean more people are renters. When it comes to homeowners, rising insurance costs mean more people are uninsured or underinsured. And as flooding becomes more common outside of designated flood zones, it’s hitting more people who don’t have flood insurance.

Now, those three changes — worsening climate risks, more development in high-risk areas, and insurance that’s increasingly unaffordable — are leaving more people in trouble.

“The need is growing,” Mr. Fugate said. “It’s the federal taxpayer that’s picking up that risk.”



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