Why FEMA won’t rebuild your home after a disaster


When a fire rips through a community and the president declares a major disaster, it opens the way for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help. But that aid is quite limited, according to the intent of Congress.

“I think too many people get the wrong impression that FEMA is there to fix it all or make it whole,” said Jenni Campbell, executive director of the Los Angeles Region Community Recovery Organization (LARCRO), a nonprofit who works with FEMA and other organizations to coordinate long-term recovery for fire-ravaged communities.

Survivors of disasters like forest fires who qualify for FEMA assistance can typically expect a few thousand dollars in home repairs or other needs while they work to rebuild their lives. But even those who make it through the confusing application process have to prove that they had little insurance, income or creditworthiness to get help.

According to the Government Accountability Office, only about half of applicants are approved.

Take the case of David Harshbarger. His three bedroom prefabricated house on a large plot in Juniper Hills was one of 87 that burned on September 18, 2020 when the Bobcat Fire topped the ridge of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Harshbarger was tempted to save the house he had lived in for several decades, but all he had was the water the truck had put in the tank on its last delivery. The fire was moving too fast, he said.

“The fire came down like a firestorm, winds at 300 mph, 3,000 degrees temperature, nothing in its way as you can see could survive,” Harshbarger said.

He worked in the film industry as a prop master for 30 years, and when we toured his property he pointed out the location of his 48-foot trailer full of props that have been used in numerous films. All of these items burned together with those in a steel container.

All that remained were a few sci-fi props like a small rocket made of scrap metal and the rusted iron rims of some western wagon wheels. “I had a cannon from the Last of the Mohicans on this side of the house, a large fiberglass cannon that melted,” Harshbarger said.

Immediately after the fire, Harshbarger did what so many disaster survivors recommend – he registered with FEMA and applied for help through the individual and household program.

But Harshbarger did not get any financial help from FEMA. And that’s not surprising.

Millions apply for FEMA cash, less than half get one

An accountability office of the federal government Exam last year found that most applicants have too much income or too much insurance to qualify.

That was the case with Harshbarger. He did not expect to receive any cash assistance from FEMA as he was insured and his home insurance covered his stay in a hotel for the first few weeks after the fire in his house.

Between 2016 and 2018, survivors received approximately $ 6 billion in FEMA aid and were housed in 12,805 temporary housing units. Most applicants were uninsured and most had incomes below $ 50,000, according to a GAO report dated February 2021.

More than half of the 4.4 million people who applied to FEMA Program for individuals and households for cash aid were denied, according to the GAO report.

Around 2.4 million applicants were turned away because their property had not suffered enough damage to meet program requirements or because they could not provide sufficient evidence of their losses.

But of the nearly 2 million people admitted to the Individuals and Households program between 2016 and 2018, the payouts were pretty small. On average, a homeowner received about $ 4,200 and a renter received $ 1,700.

Confusing Instructions on How to Apply for SBA Loans

The GAO exam made another point about the barriers people encounter in seeking federal aid. It said too many applicants for FEMA aid drop out in the process because of confusing news from FEMA.

The biggest source of confusion is the mandate for FEMA Aid applicants to apply for small business loans – and be denied all or part of a loan – in order to qualify for support for the FEMA Individual and Household Program.

Courtesy of the Government Accountability Office

“It is very confusing …. this is a piece [of FEMA rules] that still confuses me, ”said Campbell, LARCRO’s executive director.

People who don’t run small businesses don’t understand why they need to apply for a loan with the SBA, she said.

FEMA’s rules, established by Congress under the Stafford Act, prohibit FEMA from duplicating the resources a disaster survivor has in the form of income, insurance, or credit. Hence the instruction to apply for a loan with the SBA, which has the internal mechanisms for issuing loans and managing repayments.

FEMA aid is not going to rebuild your ruined home

Once a person is deemed sufficient with no income or insurance to be eligible for FEMA assistance, that assistance is still quite limited.

The allowance is limited to making your home safely habitable and both needs and costs must be documented. And not every home would receive the same amount of repairs.

For example, an insured couple living in a larger house would get less help than a family of five who are uninsured and live in the same house.

Payments are a maximum of $ 36,000. And that’s hardly enough to replace a burned house in Southern California.

However, it could be enough to make a fire-damaged house habitable if only part of the house was burned or if the damage was limited to part of the roof and smoke damage, for example.

Renters displaced by a disaster who do not have insurance or other means of paying rent can receive up to 18 months of housing allowance from FEMA, which could cover a replacement home at market price. In limited circumstances, FEMA could also provide prefabricated enclosures.

Courtesy of the Government Accountability Office

FEMA has a second program that can provide up to an additional $ 36,000 to an eligible homeowner or tenant to meet other needs. It is Program to support other needs can cover personal property losses, medical, dental or funeral expenses, childcare, transportation losses, and relocation and storage, according to FEMA spokeswoman Veronica Verde. Again, the applicant would first need to apply for an SBA loan and be denied and have no other insurance or income to cover these things before FEMA can offer any other need assistance.

“Whatever the insurance pays, we cannot duplicate these benefits,” Verde said.

Helpful monetary benefits from FEMA for fire survivors

One of the most valuable in-kind benefits a person can receive from FEMA is that they fund a local disaster management organization for survivors that helps them access a wide range of services.

Under this arrangement, professional social workers interview survivors, assess their needs, help them find FEMA help, and refer them to psychological counseling, legal assistance, and even volunteer help in rebuilding their homes. These services do not come directly from FEMA, but rather from a network of state and local governments, donors, and nonprofits.

For example, a local FEMA-funded case management organization could receive the proceeds from a fundraiser and distribute it to customers who need it.

Campbell of rescue organization LARCRO said she was trying to find residents in Juniper Hills to take the lead in forming such an organization known as the Volunteer organizations in the event of a disaster.

“We need community leaders to come forward and move this process forward to use the resources available,” she said.

And Campbell is not surprised that no such organization has formed in the year since the Bobcat Fire. The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for groups to form, she said. Some of the survivors of the fire have moved away and are no longer involved in Juniper Hills. And it can take many months for fire survivors to emerge from the optimistic “heroes and honeymoon” phase of surviving a fire to be where they better understand their needs.

Until that happens, the survivors of the Bobcat Fire are more or less on their own.

Harshbarger’s daughter, Charli Transue, is volunteering to liaise with a potential long-term recovery group but is not currently ready to take on the lead role.

Charli Transue and her father David Harshbarger with his statue of St. Francis of Assisi on the fire-scarred property in Juniper Hills, where his house was burned in the bobcat fire.Sharon McNary / LAist

Back on Harshbarger’s burned property, the burned remains of some of the Joshua trees common on his side of the mountain are showing new blooms.

State and local authorities, working in conjunction with FEMA, arranged for the evacuation of burned property, which is another community benefit that can come from declaring a federal disaster.

Now that the site of Harshbarger’s ruined house has been cleared, he has chosen a location for a boulder that he will sandblast to make an engraved headstone to mark where his wife’s ashes will be buried.

“We’ll be putting Gladys right here,” said Harshbarger, pointing to a rock-lined property that also houses the remains of his father and several beloved pets.

Harshbarger said he believes the stress of the fire and the loss of her home accelerated his wife’s cancer death in June.

Looking ahead, Harshbarger said his insurance would not be enough to complete the construction of a replacement home and he was overqualified to receive FEMA cash grants. So he will consider taking out a low-interest catastrophe loan with the Small Business Administration.

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