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FEMA pressed on historically high rejection rates for disaster survivors

Kim Schmadeke in her damaged trailer in Kirkwood Estates mobile home park in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on March 10. After her initial application for aid from FEMA was denied with little explanation, she became one of the 3 percent of applicants who contest rejections. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)
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At a time of worsening natural disasters and with the Biden administration leaning more heavily on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to handle a host of crises, the head of the agency was called before Congress on Wednesday to explain to a key subcommittee why FEMA’s approval rates for disaster survivors who apply for 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 A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, at Wednesday’s hearing.

“I understand the frustration,” responded 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 in April 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 a 60-year-old Iowa woman named Kim Schmadeke, whose trailer was torn apart by a freak storm that demolished large swaths of Iowa in August 2020. After her initial bid for help was denied with little explanation, she became one of the 3 percent of applicants who contest rejections.

Several appeals later, FEMA gave her $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 will also 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.