Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

How to navigate FEMA aid: Advice from a former employee

A collapsed house damaged by Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in southeast Louisiana on August 29. (Photo credit Ko Bragg)

We’ve been fielding your questions about navigating federal assistance after Hurricane Ida. A longtime FEMA employee has some answers.

When people turn to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after a disaster, it’s under some of the worst conditions: they’re often reeling from the loss of their homes and essential services, even loved ones. Applying for aid and navigating a complicated bureaucracy can be challenging, confusing, and frustrating, particularly when FEMA’s messaging to the public doesn’t match up with the experiences of people seeking help.

Patricia Stukes worked for FEMA for over a decade, from late 1995 through 2006 – a year after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. She took registrations, answered the helpline, and administered appeals. A native of New Orleans, she is now an assistant professor at Texas Women’s University in Denton, where she teaches women’s studies and sociology often through the lens of disasters. Following Hurricanes Laura and Delta last year, she provided volunteer casework for people navigating FEMA assistance in southwest Louisiana through the Disaster Justice Network

Since Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana over three weeks ago, Southerly has been gathering readers’ questions about FEMA, and posing them to Stukes for guidance. Here is what we’ve learned:

Types of Aid

When a disaster strikes, state governors can ask the White House for a federal disaster declaration, which then opens the gates for FEMA assistance. There are two different streams of assistance from FEMA: Public Assistance, which goes to local governments, and Individual Assistance, which goes to households. Southerly focused on the latter, through which FEMA funds “uninsured or underinsured necessary expenses and serious needs.” (You can look up your zip code here to see if you’re in an eligible area.)

Under the umbrella of Individual Assistance, there are three major types of resources, according to Stukes. 

The first is housing. During her tenure at FEMA, Stukes said the major guiding principle for housing assistance was: “Are you safe, sanitary, and secure?” 

If your home is unlivable for a prolonged period following a disaster, FEMA will likely consider rental assistance for a few months, Stukes said. That can apply to both homeowners and to renters seeking a temporary place to stay. FEMA bases rental assistance awards on the Fair Market Rent for a given area, which can be found on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website. Other types of housing assistance from FEMA include temporary units— like FEMA trailers— and funds for repairing damage.

The second main type of aid is for personal property loss, Stukes said. If basic necessities were destroyed by the disaster — like a bed, kitchen table, or living room furniture — FEMA could award you money to replace those things. 

However, FEMA cannot duplicate benefits you might have from insurance — either renter’s or homeowner’s. “If you have insurance, FEMA is not going to reward you; they’re going to figure out what was covered with your insurance, and they’re going to deny you predicated on the fact that you had insurance that should cover your losses,” Stukes said. 

The third type of primary assistance is for medical needs stemming from the disaster, Stukes said. If eyeglasses or dentures were destroyed, or there were major medical medical bills as a result of the event, those may be eligible for reimbursement. There are also programs to cover funeral expenses for people who died as a result of the disaster.

Following Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, a few other types of assistance came into play, too. One is the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, through which FEMA directly pays hotels to house people who evacuate when they can’t live in their homes. Another is Critical Needs Assistance, which provides $500 payments for food, water, fuel, “and other life-saving or life-sustaining needs.” But the deadline lapsed this Wednesday. Our story co-published with The Lens found that applicants’ experiences varied widely, leaving questions about what qualifies someone for the aid.  

After you provide initial information to FEMA when you apply — either through DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-3362 — the agency will then decide on your eligibility for its different types of assistance.

The general deadline for FEMA assistance tied to Hurricane Ida in Louisiana is October 28th.

Communicating with FEMA

After Hurricane Ida, many Louisiana residents have received a discouraging initial letter from FEMA within a day or so of applying for aid. Many say something like this: “At this time, based on the information you provided at the time of your application, you are not being referred to the Individuals and Households Program.” 

The letters also say if you did report damage, you will be required to complete an application for a low-interest disaster loan with the Small Business Administration (SBA) before being considered for FEMA assistance. 

Many applicants who are not business owners have expressed confusion about this referral. FEMA spokesperson Robert Howard told Southerly in an email that people don’t need to own a business to apply for a disaster loan from the SBA, the agency that also managed PPP loans during the pandemic. However, Howard said that if you get referred to the SBA, you must complete this loan application in order to be considered for certain types of FEMA assistance, such as personal property and vehicle repair or replacement.

“If the SBA determines that an applicant (is) not eligible for a loan, they will automatically refer you to FEMA’s Individuals and Households program based on their decision,” he added.

Stukes takes issue with how FEMA words these initial letters, which many applicants interpret as the end of the road. Oftentimes, FEMA might just need more information or documentation of a specific situation.

FEMA agents themselves might be fielding calls from far outside the disaster area. Stukes remembered taking calls from disaster survivors in the Dakotas while working out of her FEMA office in Texas. These employees can be “kind of distanced from all of the sense of urgency,” Stukes said.

When asked to respond to Stukes’ statement about FEMA agents being distanced from hard-hit areas, Howard from FEMA saidwe have no knowledge of nor would we be able to speak about what someone else might say about past recovery operations.” He said for Hurricane Ida survivors, FEMA’s call center is open 24/7 with staff committed to helping those with serious needs.

Stukes noted that bias inevitably comes in when employees pick up the phone, too. “It’s the attitudes of empathy, attitudes of regional dialects, attitudes about what people have — all of that stuff can come into play when you’re dealing with human beings,” Stukes said.

Many readers told Southerly they had technical issues when applying for assistance. Some said the website crashed or gave them an error message, and others said they had little luck getting a FEMA employee on the phone. When you visit DisasterAssistance.gov, there’s a red banner at the top of the page: “Hurricane Ida – High Call Volume Expected,” it reads. 

Stukes acknowledged the frustration, and advised applicants to be patient and persistent. 

“I don’t think FEMA can guarantee you a website experience that never crashes, because it’s always under the worst circumstances that it’s operating,” she said. “There’s never really (a) leisure response (at) FEMA. It’s always a bunch of people calling all at once.”

In response to a question about technical difficulties, Howard noted the agency cannot speak to an individual’s unique experience, and said that as of Thursday, FEMA has provided over $480 million to households impacted by Ida in Louisiana. 

Appealing FEMA

In recent months, FEMA has approved fewer applicants for assistance than it has in the past. The Washington Post found that FEMA used to approve about two-thirds of people who applied for Individual Assistance, but after Hurricane Katrina, the agency was criticized for “letting fraud slip through,” and its approval rates plummeted. During the first months of 2021, The Post found that FEMA approved only 13 percent of applicants — a record low.

If FEMA does not approve you for aid, if you’re awarded an amount of money that does not cover all of your necessary expenses, or if you were approved for a different type of assistance from the one you actually need, you can appeal the decision in writing. FEMA generally gives 60 days to appeal.

This additional step of the process can make already stressed people upset, Stukes said. But “it should be considered as another lever that you’re pushing to go forward with whatever is going on with your recovery,” she added. 

Stukes suggests taking photos of damage and to keep receipts for all disaster-related expenses, like hotels, gas, and repairs. Keep them in a folder, and export them to an external drive if you can, she said, in case your computer gets damaged. 

Having all that documentation on hand makes it easier to appeal. She suggested tying the argument in your appeal back to those guiding principles: safety, sanitation, and security. 

Looking for more FEMA resources?

Emergency Legal Responders, a volunteer group in New Orleans, has explainers on a wide variety of federal disaster assistance questions on their Instagram page.

Real Name Campaign has tips on applying for FEMA if the name on your FEMA application does not match your legal name. 

Southeast Louisiana Legal Services has a disaster legal aid hotline: 1-844-244-7871.

Impacted by Hurricane Ida and have questions about federal assistance? We’d love to hear from you for future reporting. Email berlincarly@gmail.com.

Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.