Current FEMA disaster recovery policy will leave low-income hurricane survivors unassisted

Lester Washington was denied FEMA assistance after his home in Houston was knocked off its foundation by Hurricane Ike. FEMA's reason, the house needed other repairs before the hurricane.

Lower income Texas families whose homes are damaged by Hurricane Alex and future hurricanes this season will be denied financial assistance due to an undocumented Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) repair policy. FEMA’s policy of refusing to assist households whose homes needed repairs before a hurricane (termed “deferred maintenance”) came to light in the wake of hurricanes Dolly and Ike in 2008, leaving 115,000 Texas elderly, disabled and low-wage homeowners without the help they need to repair their homes.

“This tragedy will be repeated again unless FEMA stops its ad hoc policy of denying home repairs to help poor families with disaster damage,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS). “We met with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate on the ground in Texas to show him the devastating consequences of this discriminatory policy six months ago, yet nothing has changed.”

Following Hurricane Ike, FEMA denied 85 percent of claims for housing assistance, with “insufficient damage” being the most common reason for denial (over 100,000 denied Texas claims). Many low-income families — the vast majority of them low-wage workers, the elderly and the disabled — were sent a FEMA form letter stating that their “insufficient damage” was based on “deferred maintenance.”

FEMA uses an ad hoc “deferred maintenance” test to deny home repair assistance if inspectors somehow determine the damage was caused more by a home’s pre-disaster condition than the storm itself. After Hurricane Dolly hit South Texas two years ago, FEMA spokesperson Charles Powell explained that Dolly’s high rate of “deferred maintenance” denials resulted from the fact that, “a lot of the homes built were built from second-hand materials…. So the damage was, in most cases, caused from the faulty building of the house and not the storm.”

The federal Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 states: “[t]he President may provide financial assistance for … the repair of owner-occupied private residences, utilities, and residential infrastructure … damaged by a major disaster to a safe and sanitary living or functioning condition….” It further states, “[t]he President shall prescribe rules and regulations to carry out this section, including criteria, standards, and procedures for determining eligibility for assistance.” Congress set a deadline of October 15, 2002 for FEMA’s compliance. Over seven years later, FEMA has yet to adopt a final policy regarding denial of assistance for homes with pre-disaster maintenance needs.

Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) filed suit against FEMA in a case known as LUPE v FEMA. Brownsville Federal District Judge Hilda Tagle ruled that existing FEMA regulations were insufficient, and issued a preliminary injunction requiring FEMA to clarify the basis for denying disaster assistance due to “deferred maintenance.”

On January 29, 2010 FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate toured Houston homes that were denied assistance under FEMA’s “deferred maintenance” policy. Fugate visited the damaged home of Lester Washington, an elderly Texas veteran located in Houston’s Acres Homes subdivision. Winds from Hurricane Ike blew the house off its foundation and trees fell through the roof of the modest wood frame home where Washington lived since he was a child.

72 year-old Houston army veteran Lester Washington received letter denying him help to rebuild his home. Washington is one of 115,000 Texas families denied assistance from FEMA because their homes needed repairs before the hurricane.

“I haven’t heard anything from FEMA even though they promised to look into it, Mr. Washington said. “They need to make a change so that more people don’t end up in my situation, with an unlivable house and no money to fix it up.” Washington is a member of the Texas Organizing Project, a grassroots community organizing effort in Houston.

Standing in front of Washington’s battered home six months ago, the FEMA director indicated he would investigate the case and the FEMA policy that denied assistance to over 100,000 homes in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Mr. Washington never heard from FEMA again.

Instead, FEMA appealed Lupe v. FEMA to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. On June 2, 2010 the appeals court ruled that more legal proceedings needed to occur before courts could compel FEMA to issue the long overdue regulations.

“So far all courts have agreed that FEMA’s regulations are rather poor, and if FEMA wants to continue defending the way it treats poor families after disasters, it may have to defend itself all the way to the Supreme Court,” said TRLA attorney Jerome Wesevich.

“FEMA’s refusal to operate in a transparent and accountable manner has resulted in individual suffering and misallocation of funds across the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney with Texas Appleseed who works for lower-income hurricane survivors in Texas.

“Instead of resorting to legal delaying tactics, President Obama should direct FEMA to comply with the law and publish a policy telling homeowners whether their homes damaged by hurricanes this season will qualify for federal assistance,” said Mr. Henneberger. “Simply because a family’s home had repair needs before the hurricane should not be a reason to deny all help to that family.”

Over the course of the coming months Texans will work to repair their wind and flood damaged homes. FEMA will help some families thanks to President Obama’s declaration of South Texas as a disaster area. “Without change to FEMA’s policy, the President’s proclamation won’t make any difference in the lives of many low-income homeowners who will be denied the help they need to rebuild,” said Mr. Henneberger.

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