Disasters come in various forms; there are hurricanes, earthquakes, monsoons, tornados, etc. Unfortunately, a lot of disasters in the modern day are correlated with the effects of colonialism, capitalism and climate change. The ways people experience disaster also varies based upon location, country, race and gender. Often times when disaster strikes a developing country that is either still colonized or that has recently been “decolonized”, the effects are exacerbated due to the fact that there are already standing issues within the country. This has been exemplified in countries such as Puerto Rico and more recently the Bahamas. For the United States and its territories, the agency that steps in to provide aid is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Their mission statement is “helping people before, during and after disasters”; unfortunately, the length of time the presume is okay to provide assistance after a natural disaster is not adequate.
There are currently poor procedures in place to aid people who need help the most. FEMA provides aid to countries in need for a limited amount of time. There aren’t any procedures in place to provide help to these individuals in a long term manner. Arguably, this is because there is a limited understanding of the long term effects of trauma towards people of color. In disaster situations that impact a predominantly white population, there tends to be a sense of urgency to fix the problems caused by the disaster. Essentially, these people are given the opportunity to return back to normal in an expedited fashion. It is clear that FEMA has organized their timelines around privileged people, whether that be racial or via class.
Currently, FEMA has a multitude of services geared towards helping individuals and businesses get back on their feet. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the services provided to individuals. To try and highlight the issues within all of FEMA’s disaster support programs would take an entire novel. We will focus solely on FEMA’s housing assistance and the issues with the programs that fall under the temporary housing assistance category. FEMA does not provide as much help as the average person might consider. The things that fall under FEMA’s housing assistance include temporary housing, home repair assistance and home replacement assistance. At a glance, it seems that they have covered their bases, however that’s not true.
FEMA’s temporary housing is only for homeowners who are uninsured or underinsured that have been displaced after a natural disaster. This temporary housing assistance consists of initial rental assistance, utility outage rental assistance, inaccessible rental assistance, continued rental assistance and lodging expense reimbursement. The initial rental assistance covers an individual for two months; this is only given to people whose homes have been deemed uninhabitable or homes where people have been forcibly relocated. According to Forbes, 78% of workers in the U.S. live paycheck to paycheck. The likelihood that a person requesting temporary housing from FEMA will be able to get their finances in order directly after a disaster is low. There are so many personal factors that this short time period does not consider. A person may lose their job and continued financial stability as a result of the disaster. Providing assistance for a mere two months is not only biased towards helping the gainfully employed individual, but it is also biased towards people who fall into very binary categories.
FEMA’s temporary housing becomes even more complicated once we take a look at their utility outage rental assistance. This covers those that experience “extended” utility outage in their area, and thus need rental assistance for another home. The coverage is provided typically for one month. The period of time that qualifies as “extended” is unavailable on their website. So not only will a person who has relocated because of extended power outages have one month of rental assistance, but they might not even qualify for assistance and will only find out after requesting this assistance. This is not the only example on FEMA’s website of language being vague; this is important to note as it allows for the agency to cover its bases and still be able to be selective about which individuals will receive aid and support from them.
Moving forward, there is inaccessible rental assistance. As inclusive as this title may sound, it is not. At a glance, one might assume that FEMA provides further assistance to those that need to relocate to a more accessible home due to disabilities they suffered before the disaster or as a result of the disaster. That is not the case; FEMA’s inaccessible rental assistance actually covers those whose homes are literally inaccessible to them as a result of the disaster. This inaccessibility to a home is usually due to flooding situations or issues where air quality is unsafe, therefore there is restriction to the home. This support is also only typically provided for one month.
Interested by this short amount of time that support will be provided to disaster survivors in this case, I took a look into the reality of repairing a home after flooding occurred. The act of drying out a room after flooding can take anywhere from twelve hours to several weeks depending on the size of the flood; the average time it takes to dry out one room after flooding is 72 hours. Assuming it takes the average amount of time to dry out a room to dry out multiple rooms in a house, there still must be consideration of the time it will take to repair the damages caused by flooding. Often times, flooring must be pulled out and drywall must be replaced after being submerged in water to avoid mold. The entirety of this process can take a month if everything happens quickly and nothing goes wrong during the repair process. After flooding however, items within the house usually need to be replaced as well. Referring back to the statistic provided by Forbes, 78% of people in the U.S. are living check to check. It is unrealistic to assume that people will be able to repair their homes and then replace the items in their home within just a month. FEMA’s inaccessible rental assistance then proves itself to not be helpful in the long term.
Now, FEMA does provide continued rental assistance in some cases. This form of assistance can only be provided for up to 18 months from the date of the disaster declaration, not from the time that the award is given or requested. FEMA claims to take approximately two to three days to approve people for assistance. However, most people may not qualify for this long term assistance and even if they do, it does not cover the full cost of rent needed. It is actually a monthly allowance that is based on the market at the time. Again, this is not a long enough period of time given to disaster survivors.
There are many factors to consider in terms of trauma being experienced after a natural disaster. After a disaster, people experience loss in a range of forms. Some experience of family members, loss of a home, loss of access to clean water, long term financial loss depending on the severity of the disaster and in some cases loss of access to healthcare. Those losses affect everyone, but then there must be consideration of people who were previously disadvantaged before the disaster. Homeless and impoverished people experiencing these losses coupled with the financial loss that comes with experiencing a disaster are often overlooked in these plans to help people recover.
Based on the information provided above, it is clear that these assistance programs not only neglect a vast majority of the in-need population, but also neglects the part of the population that was in need of assistance before the disaster. As I’ve highlighted the issues FEMA’s housing assistance program, I want people to consider that this a program that is based in the United States of America. If this is the quality of assistance that the U.S. government plans to give to its own, imagine how that quality of assistance diminishes when considering the support they should be providing to people in U.S. territories, or countries with high U.S. influence. This is something that needs to be fixed; this is a call to organizations and agencies such as FEMA to reform.