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The challenges of receiving disaster aid from FEMA

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Recovering from a disaster can take years. And financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is critical for disaster survivors. In Eastern Kentucky, some people have yet to receive the federal aid they need to repair their homes after catastrophic flooding. Kentucky Public Radio's Justin Hicks reports confusion over FEMA appeals deadlines has exacerbated the problem.

JUSTIN HICKS, BYLINE: Lance Damer and Susan Hall live in Hindman, Ky. Their home was one of the many hit by flooding about two years ago. They followed the instructions every government official repeated - apply for a FEMA grant to help fix your house. They did, and soon an inspector came.

LANCE DAMER: And within 10 minutes of him being here, he had $11,000 coming, like, within three or four days.

HICKS: But at that point, they say they didn't realize the full extent of the damage. Once they cleared debris from under the house, they discovered ruined duct work, leaky pipes and faulty electrical systems.

DAMER: OK, the HVAC right here, it doesn't work. The AC went first. The heater went second.

HICKS: So they appealed for more aid. For months, the couple faxed repair estimates and pictures to FEMA and got letters back saying the agency needed more information. Meanwhile, their heat hasn't worked all winter, and they can't take hot showers.

DAMER: I've never had to struggle just to provide myself with the basic staples of existence - you know what I mean? - just to live and breathe and, you know, and take a shower or stay warm.

HICKS: They started working with the legal aid nonprofit, and with their help, they made a series of appeals. After all, they had only received about a third of the repair money they could be eligible for. Then earlier this year, they discovered their online FEMA portal was suddenly blank. So they made a frantic call to their lawyer at AppalReD, short for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund. Here's Whitney Bailey, their disaster resource attorney.

WHITNEY BAILEY: There was nothing there. It doesn't say that there's any appeal pending.

HICKS: Bailey called a FEMA helpline to figure out what was going on and invited me to listen in.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)

AUTOMATED VOICE: Hello. You have reached FEMA, the federal emergency...

HICKS: Bailey gets through to a call center employee. He tells her the case is closed because of an 18-month deadline. So no appeals are possible. This is similar to how dozens of Bailey's clients found out about this deadline - from a call center or a letter after their cases were closed, ending their hopes for thousands of dollars in additional aid. But despite what survivors are hearing, FEMA officials say there's no such thing as an appeals deadline for aid. So what's going on here? I got in touch with FEMA headquarters and spoke with Elizabeth Asche, the deputy director of individual assistance in Washington and Public Affairs Officer Daniel Llargues.

ELIZABETH ASCHE: You know, you have a year-and-a-half essentially to appeal the decisions. So most of them are done far before that very end of the period of assistance.

HICKS: So to put this simply, is there an appeals deadline?

ASCHE: So...

DANIEL LLARGUES: I don't think you can put it simply, Justin.

HICKS: They say every case is handled individually. The deadline FEMA tells people in letters is just 60 days for an appeal. But FEMA policy also gives them some leeway. Now, FEMA regulations say financial assistance ends 18 months after a disaster. Yet that's not always publicly communicated to disaster survivors. And it turns out this issue comes up after disasters all across the country - like Hurricane Ida in Louisiana in 2021. Claire Balsley is with a nonprofit that helped people there navigate disaster aid programs. And for many, time was running out.

CLAIRE BALSLEY: When we get down to the wire, we have so many people saying, hey, I didn't realize I had a deadline.

HICKS: Her group and others petitioned FEMA to extend to the 18-month deadline, and they did for three months. But she says FEMA could be a lot more transparent and tell people they can't appeal forever.

BALSLEY: Yeah, you can appeal as many times as you feel like you need to appeal, up to that 18-month mark - is so important. People will come to you three years down the line and say, hey, I want to appeal FEMA, and they can't.

HICKS: Amid the confusion, Damer and Hall still have no heat or hot water. At this point, all Hall knows for certain is that the house doesn't meet FEMA's three basic guidelines - safe, sanitary and functional.

SUSAN HALL: This house is none of them.

DAMER: And it's got issues.

HICKS: Since their FEMA case is closed, they're trying to work through their congressmen to get it reopened. For NPR News, I'm Justin Hicks in Hindman, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justin Hicks
[Copyright 2024 LPM News]