The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is involved with everything from immediate aid during a crisis to assisting with mitigation projects that will help protect communities from future disasters.
The government agency works with state, local, and tribal governments to distribute funds and complete projects. One of the most important functions it serves is distributing government aid to help people rebuild and recover after a natural disaster. The agency can be tricky to navigate, with systemic barriers that have made it harder for low-income communities and communities of color to receive the aid that they need.
Below, we explain FEMA responsibilities and programs, and provide information about how to apply for aid after a disaster.
The president must declare a federal disaster before Congress can appropriate recovery funds that FEMA will distribute. Read more here about how a disaster is declared.
Public assistance programs distribute aid that goes directly to local, state, territorial, and tribal governments, as well as certain kinds of nonprofits, to rebuild, restore or replace infrastructure and public facilities that were damaged in a natural disaster. In some cases, aid may go to private entities that manage utilities, sewer systems, and other public services. Often, FEMA reimburses these parties for money they spend up front — meaning the federal government will foot part of the bill (usually 75%) for eligible costs, while the local partner matches the rest.
Hazard Mitigation: This aid goes towards preventing future impacts of disasters, funding projects like flood control systems, infrastructure protection and wildfire management that may help reduce the long-term risks that communities may face. FEMA provides up to 75% of the funding for a project, and a local partner matches the remaining 25%.
Individuals and Households Program
This program allows people to apply directly for disaster recovery assistance, if they’re in a federally-declared disaster area. This program is intended to cover “uninsured or under-insured necessary expenses and serious needs,” so FEMA typically instructs people to seek help through private insurance first. People seeking this assistance must register for assistance with FEMA. Applications can be submitted online at disasterAssistance.gov, or over the phone at 800-621-3362.
The following types of aid might be available to people impacted by a natural disaster through the Individuals and Households Program.
Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program: If requested by the state, FEMA may provide short-term non-congregate shelter options for people displaced by a disaster, meant to serve as a bridge between an emergency shelter and permanent housing. Through this program, FEMA may temporarily cover the cost of a hotel room for an evacuee in a neighboring state. Evacuees are responsible for locating a pre-approved hotel from a list provided by FEMA
Lodging Expense Reimbursement: FEMA may reimburse an evacuee for short stays in hotels, motels, or other short-term lodging. Receipts are required.
Critical Needs Assistance: In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, FEMA may provide a one-time, $500 payment to cover life-saving resources to those impacted by a disaster. This includes food, water, infant formula, diapers, certain medical supplies, hygiene items and fuel for transportation. To receive the payment, you must register through FEMA.
Rental Assistance: Homeowners and renters may receive funding to temporarily relocate if their home is not safe. Before providing aid, FEMA will inspect the primary residence; if it is deemed unsafe, the applicant can receive up to two months of initial rental assistance. If you receive rental assistance from an insurance company, you can’t receive additional funding from FEMA. The rental assistance rate is set by an area’s Fair Market Rent; look up yours here. To receive continuing rental assistance, you must be able to demonstrate ongoing need, and prove that you are working towards securing permanent housing or making progress on repairs. Generally, rental assistance can be used up to 18 months after the disaster declaration, unless FEMA approved an extension request from the state. In some cases, FEMA will provide “Expedited Rental Assistance,” which does not require a home inspection. This money can be used to cover the cost of staying in a hotel while evacuated.
Home repair or replacement: FEMA may provide funding to help repair or replace owner-occupied homes that serve as the owner’s primary residence. This program is geared towards homeowners who have uninsured or under-insured needs, and aims to make the home “safe, sanitary, and fit to occupy,” not necessarily to return the home to its pre-disaster condition. Receiving funds for replacements is rarer. This assistance may include funds for hazard mitigation measures, such as roof, furnace, water heater, or main electrical panel mitigation, to help reduce the amount of damage to the home in future disasters, if those items were damaged by the disaster.
Operation Blue Roof: This program can provide free fiber-reinforced tarps to cover damaged roofs before permanent repairs are made. Homeowners and permanently occupied rental properties in disaster areas can be eligible. This program is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for FEMA.
Other Needs Assistance (ONA): FEMA may provide assistance with medical and dental expenses caused by the storm, as well as funeral costs, and moving or storage costs; a one-time child care stipend may be provided as well, covering 8 weeks. In some cases — like for personal property or transportation assistance— the application goes through the Small Business Administration, even if the applicant is not a business owner. (See “Small Business Administration Loans.”)
Disaster Unemployment Assistance: This program provides assistance from the date you become unemployed due to a natural disaster, and can be extended up to 26 weeks (about 6 months) after the Presidential Disaster Declaration. This program covers people who are not receiving, or do not qualify for, other types of state-level unemployment benefits: For example, self-employed people, farm, migrant and seasonal workers. To apply for FEMA disaster unemployment assistance, you must be registered in your state’s employment services office; other requirements, such as work searches, vary by state. This assistance is under the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Labor and it is administered at the local level.
Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP): This program gives food assistance to low-income households with food loss or damage caused by a natural disaster. A state must be approved for individual assistance through a disaster declaration first, and can then request approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to operate D-SNAP. Even if you don’t typically qualify for SNAP, you may qualify for DSNAP. More information can be found here.
Legal Services: After a disaster declaration, an organization called the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association provides free legal assistance for survivors of the disaster. These services are available to low-income individuals who are unable to otherwise have a lawyer. The legal service can provide assistance with insurance claims (including property, health and life); assistance to renters who have issues with their landlords; and issues related to wills and related documents lost during the disaster. Local legal aid services can also provide services. Read our full guide to legal aid here.
Crisis Counseling: This program provides short-term mental health counseling to survivors of a natural disaster. Counseling may be available for up to nine months after a disaster and is available to anyone who may benefit from counseling who lived in the area impacted by a disaster.
Special Tax Considerations: People impacted by a natural disaster who experienced financial loss may claim a deduction on their federal income tax return for the year that the disaster occurred. More details are available from the IRS, including how to calculate whether you meet the minimum loss requirement.
Small Business Administration Loans: This agency may provide federally subsidized loans for individuals and businesses. Individuals do not have to own a business to apply, and FEMA may refer people to the SBA. The agency provides loans to help repair damages to homes or personal property during a disaster. Businesses may receive a loan to repair physical damage or economic losses.