Fighting the Tide of Paperwork: Administrative Burden in Disaster Recovery


Administrative burden can present itself at every turn after a disaster — from waiting months to receive a home buyout to filling out arduous home repair applications. At all levels of government, these burdens prevent disaster survivors from swiftly receiving the aid that they need. In our new article, In the Aftermath of the Storm: Administrative Burden in Disaster Recovery, Luke Shaefer and I describe how administrative burden and other factors delayed disaster recovery in a South Carolina community rocked by repeated hurricanes. As communities across the country face repeated natural disasters, this research illuminates pervasive barriers to recovery. 

As Texas Appleseed intern Allaena Cruz presented in a blog last month, administrative burden is “one’s experience of policy implementation as onerous.”(1) Administrative burden appears across policy arenas and makes receiving government services more difficult, with immigrants, people with disabilities, and communities of color generally facing the greatest barriers. Administrative burden is not only stressful, but it can keep families in substandard housing, push them into homelessness, and harm their health.

Living in rural South Carolina in 2019, I saw directly how administrative burden and delays can prevent communities from recovering after natural disasters. At the time, my colleague Jasmine Simington and I were conducting interviews for the Understanding Communities of Deep Disadvantage project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Across Marion County, a small majority-Black county in eastern South Carolina,  homes still contained mold and were in need of major repairs more than two years after Hurricane Florence. 

Barbara Hopkins, formerly the mayor of Sellers, described how folks had spent years in moldy homes and were feeling the effects. She told us,  “When we had the 2015 flood, I think about nine seniors got really messed up. And one person who’s 91 years old living in Sellers right now, promised a home, since 2015, and have not got a home yet. We had one lady, Tiffany. She stayed in a molded home and she went to FEMA and they finally passed it for her that she was going to get a home, but never received the [new] home. She died in her home.”

In our new article,  Luke Shaefer and I examine how factors including administrative burden, the slow pace of governmental aid, and the high rejection rate for FEMA Individual Assistance applicants(2) prevented families from recovering even years later. These three factors convinced some Marion County residents that applying for disaster recovery assistance was not worth the time or effort, setting off a feedback loop that depressed applications for disaster aid. Not only did these factors delay the recovery process but they also created an environment where distrust, misinformation, and a perception of procedural injustice easily spread. 

Speaking to us under a pseudonym, 90-year-old Eliza Harrison described to us how she had to live with her daughter for years as she waited for the house that FEMA had promised her.  She told us, “I got mad, and I ain’t talk to them no more. Then they had another meeting in [town]. I said, ‘Who is this here?’ They said ‘FEMA.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to them because they ain’t going to do nothing.’” 

In September of 2021, FEMA changed the rules governing Individual Assistance to make it easier to apply by allowing applicants to self-certify home ownership.  Yet as Puerto Ricans have applied for Individual Assistance following Hurricane Fiona, reports have emerged that FEMA inspectors have not incorporated the new rules and are still requiring extensive documentation.(3) 

In Puerto Rico, Texas, and across the U.S., the push to reduce administrative burdens in disaster recovery continues. At Texas Appleseed, we are incorporating the lessons from this research into our local and federal advocacy, fighting for more accessible and equitable disaster recovery programs. 

You can find the article in Social Service Review


(1)  Burden, B. C., Canon, D. T., Mayer, K. R., & Moynihan, D. P. (2012). The Effect of Administrative Burden on Bureaucratic Perception of Policies: Evidence from Election Administration. Public Administration Review, 72(5), 2.
(2) FEMA Individual Assistance provides disaster survivors with funding for temporary housing, home repair or replacement or other needs assistance in the months following the disaster.
(3) National Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition Webinar. [Online]. National Low Income Housing Coalition, October 4th, 2022



Project Association: 
Disaster Recovery & Fair Housing