What We Learned from Monitoring Hurricanes Fiona and Ian
After the devastating storms of the 2022 hurricane season, many disaster survivors in Puerto Rico and Florida were unable to access much-needed assistance through FEMA. During our ongoing analysis of FEMA’s assistance data on Hurricanes Fiona and Ian, the pace of inspections has slowed down dramatically in Puerto Rico, only a small proportion of Puerto Rican applicants have received Housing Assistance, and thousands of applications in both Florida and Puerto Rico have been rejected for failure to verify homeownership. Reports from our partners shed light on several reasons including language barriers and confusion that are behind the trends we’ve observed in the data. As our previous research has noted, these delays have serious consequences for the wellbeing of disaster survivors and the credibility and efficacy of FEMA itself.
Many Applications, Few Inspections
Our research team has been monitoring FEMA Individuals and Households Program Assistance (1) (IHP) data since October 2022 to provide an up-to-date picture of FEMA applications and inspections for our partners on the ground. Under the current system, applicants who apply for home repair or replacement assistance are subject to a property inspection before their eligibility is determined. Yet despite the thousands of IHP applications that have been submitted over the last few months, FEMA property inspections are progressing at a snail’s pace.
Based on FEMA Individual Assistance Data available here. Monitoring was suspended during the December holidays.
Although the number of inspections has remained low across both disaster areas, 28% of applicants in Florida have received an inspection compared to just 11% in Puerto Rico.
Few eligible applicants are receiving Housing Assistance. By January 21, only 41% of applicants for FEMA IHP had been deemed eligible for assistance related to Hurricane Ian. Of those, at least 61% have received $700 in Other Needs Assistance (2) (the default award for Critical Needs Assistance) - which does not require a home inspection - while only 17% have received Housing Assistance. For Hurricane Fiona, 59% of applicants have been found eligible for assistance and of those, at least 69% have received $700 in Other Needs Assistance compared to just 2% who have received Housing Assistance. These numbers suggest that FEMA is moving swiftly to address applicants’ short-term needs while the funding for longer-term projects like home repair lags behind.
Five times as many applicants from Florida are receiving FEMA Housing Assistance compared to applicants from Puerto Rico. We would expect some difference in housing assistance rates between disasters, but the difference shown here is concerning. By January 21st, 373,088 applicants in Florida and 726,275 applicants in Puerto Rico had been deemed eligible for assistance through FEMA IA. Yet, 63,192 Floridian applicants have received Housing Assistance (which falls under IHP) compared to just 14,104 Puerto Rican applicants.
Home Ownership Verification Remains A Barrier
Despite FEMA’s rule change to allow IHP applicants to self-certify home ownership, thousands of families are still being rejected for failure to prove that they own their home. By January 21st, 2023, 17,206 applications (6% of all determinations) related to Hurricane Fiona and 4,709 (1% of all determinations) related to Hurricane Ian were rejected for lack of home ownership verification alone or in combination with other factors.
Conversations with our partners at Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico have revealed that language barriers and confusion between FEMA’s written rules and their on-the-ground application have been major blocks to recovery. They have heard reports of FEMA inspectors requiring paperwork to be notarized or requiring a formal title—neither of which are required by FEMA. There have also been translation issues, as some FEMA inspectors are not fully fluent in Spanish. Families in Puerto Rico have described being rejected from Individual Assistance without a stated purpose, which complicates the appeals process. These miscommunications between FEMA, FEMA inspectors, and applicants may be responsible for the lag in completed inspections and trickle of Housing Assistance going to the island.
Delays in disaster recovery assistance have real-life consequences. Displacement can disrupt a family’s employment and education, and staying in damaged homes can lead to serious safety and health risks through exposure to mold, pests, and extreme temperatures. The challenges of navigating a confusing or unresponsive bureaucracy compounds the initial stress of disaster. Beyond the physical and psychological toll, negative experiences with disaster recovery can change how people see the government or their view of how the government sees them. It’s hard to feel like your country cares about you when you’re still waiting for assistance long after the storm that disrupted your life is out of the news cycle.
We will continue to monitor FEMA’s assistance data. You can find our methodology and maps here.
(1) FEMA’s Individual and Households Assistance Program focuses on damage to individual survivors of disasters, providing direct payments to individuals or households for housing assistance like rental assistance and home repair, or Other Needs Assistance for disaster-related needs like medical costs, funeral costs, and transportation. FEMA can also provide Critical Needs Assistance for lifesaving and life-sustaining items, including water, food, first aid, prescriptions, infant formula, diapers, medical supplies and equipment, personal hygiene items and fuel for transportation.
(2) Note: FEMA does not track the total number of applicants who receive Critical Needs Assistance, a payment of $700 to address pressing needs following a disaster. Instead, those recipients are grouped with the rest of the Other Needs Assistance recipients. We track Other Needs Assistance recipients who receive exactly $700 in aid as a rough estimate of who is receiving Critical Needs Assistance.