These issues have surfaced, to varying degrees, since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, advocates say.
(TNS) — The humble wood-frame house where Herman Smallwood has lived for 48 years rests on cinder blocks lodged in the soil of his East Aldine neighborhood. Rickety steps lead to a front door that, with a good shove, opens just enough for a visitor to squeeze into the tiny, cluttered front room.
Smallwood, who is 65 and disabled, rode out Hurricane Harvey's downpours in this house. The water didn't reach the front door, he said, but it loosened the earth beneath the cinder blocks, causing them to shift and sink to different depths.
As a result, there's hardly a level surface in the 830-square-foot house. Walls are cracked, floors tilted. Mold creeps up a bedroom wall after water poured through the roof, ruining his television and other belongings.
Smallwood's request for money for repairs was one of more than 275,000 applications from Harvey survivors that the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected, fueling persistent concerns about the fairness and transparency of the agency's process for determining who qualifies for help in the first, crucial months after a disaster.
Research by the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation found that residents of low-income neighborhoods like Smallwood's were more likely to be deemed ineligible than applicants from more affluent ZIP codes.
Lawyers and community organizers who have worked with survivors of multiple disasters cite a range of reasons why deserving applicants may be turned down — unqualified or indifferent home inspectors, unclear rules, an assumption that many applicants have fraudulent intent. Some say applicants are being rejected because their homes were in poor condition before the storm.
These issues have surfaced, to varying degrees, since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, advocates say. Despite signs of improvement, they're convinced that many people still aren't getting the help they deserve.
"We've seen it getting better," said Saundra Brown, the disaster response manager for Lone Star Legal Aid, a legal service for the poor, "but FEMA is a giant bureaucracy, and they have to be sued periodically to change things."
Texans began registering for FEMA assistance online, by phone or in person within days after Harvey struck the coast in late August, dumping up to 51 inches of rain on parts of the Houston area and leading to massive flooding.
Agency data provided to the Houston Chronicle show that 895,342 Texans had registered as of Jan. 19. Forty-one percent had been approved, with 31 percent deemed ineligible. The remaining applications had been withdrawn, referred to the Small Business Administration for a possible loan, or were pending with FEMA or awaiting an insurance determination.
To some extent, a high denial rate is built into FEMA's process. The agency encourages those affected by a disaster to register, and many people do so even though they have obvious disqualifications such as insurance that covers damage. FEMA cannot duplicate benefits.
Such circumstances account for many of the "ineligible" determinations, federal officials say.
"They might have registered to have access to an SBA low-interest disaster loan," spokesman Robert Howard wrote in an email. "They might have only suffered minor damage but registered because they heard a media report telling them they should."
Smallwood's application was processed through the "individuals and households" program, which has assisted Americans affected by more than 800 hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and other natural disasters since 2002. So far, Harvey has triggered some $1.5 billion in assistance through this program.
Nationally, FEMA spent $25.3 billion on individual assistance from 2005 through 2014, according to the General Accounting Office.
The agency stopped taking applications from people affected by Harvey on Nov. 30, but thousands of appeals are still being reviewed. New programs developed by federal agencies in partnership with the Texas General Land Office are providing some similar services as the focus of the recovery effort shifts to long-term needs.
In addition to home-repair funds, the Individuals and Households Program provides rental assistance, temporary housing such as mobile homes, and grants to replace damaged vehicles or other personal property.
It is the process for approving home-repair grants, though, that has been most troublesome to advocates for disaster survivors — particularly poor and working-class people who are less likely to have other resources such as insurance or savings.
Repairs funded through the Individuals and Households program are intended to be quick fixes until the owner can pay for permanent renovations or replacement through long-term federal assistance or other sources. The current limit on assistance per household is $33,300.
The law authorizing the program provides that it will pay only for repairs sufficient to make a disaster-damaged home "habitable." This a basis for the first reason cited for denying Smallwood's application; the storm, in FEMA's judgment, had not made the house "unsafe to occupy."
But what constitutes "habitable?"
According to a 2016 lawsuit filed against FEMA on behalf of Texas disaster victims, lack of clarity on this point makes it impossible for applicants to understand what is required to qualify for help, or to mount an effective appeal.
"The regulations define the statutory term 'uninhabitable' to mean 'not safe, sanitary, or fit to occupy,' and then define the statutory terms 'safe,' 'sanitary,' and 'functional' so broadly that the definitions provide the public with no effective notice at all of how FEMA decides habitability," the lawsuit states.
Smallwood's house, like those of many people seeking help from FEMA, was in poor condition before Harvey. In cases like his, it can be difficult for inspectors to distinguish storm-caused damage from pre-existing problems, particularly since inspectors hired quickly in the rush to respond to a disaster may have limited experience or training.
After hurricanes Ike and Dolly struck Texas in 2008, FEMA denied help to many applicants after inspectors concluded that "deferred maintenance," rather than the storm, caused the poor condition of their homes. In response to litigation, FEMA agreed to stop using this standard in future disasters.
But Brown, the Lone Star Legal Aid manager, said she suspects the agency is still denying claims based on deferred maintenance — without actually using the term. For example, she said, FEMA often denies requests based on damage from water that falls through the roof, as it did in Smallwood's house, but approves claims based on rising floodwaters.
Inspectors assume the roof was already in poor condition due to deferred maintenance, Brown said. Smallwood, however, said his roof didn't leak before Harvey.
FEMA generally doesn't comment on individual applicants, citing privacy laws.
Mary Lawler, executive director of Avenue Community Development Corp., a Houston nonprofit, made a similar point in testimony Jan. 18 to the Texas House Urban Affairs Committee.
"In our work, we're seeing that many of our low-income clients are being denied for FEMA assistance," Lawler said. "We're still trying to understand the reasons for those denials, but ... it appears that many of them are related to deferred maintenance on the homes, which of course disproportionately affects low-income households."
The second reason for Smallwood's denial — lack of proof that he owned the house — has been common after Harvey, lawyers and advocates said. Brown said about half of the clients her agency is assisting have been denied on this basis.
Smallwood said he inherited the house from his mother after her death some 30 years ago, but never had the deed transferred to his name. However, he showed the inspector tax-payment receipts, and the Harris County Appraisal District website lists "Herman Smallwood et al" as the owner.
FEMA's guidelines include "property tax receipt or property tax bill" as an "alternative certification document."
Advocates say they understand that some errors are inevitable when government agencies have to mobilize quickly to help hundreds of thousands of people after a disaster. But they're concerned that attitudes within FEMA and its contractors may add to these problems.
"FEMA is on high fraud alert, which they should be, but I believe they're denying a lot of people, assuming (applications are) fraud when they're not," Brown said.
The agency works aggressively to prevent fraud. All applicants referred to the Individuals and Households Program must sign a statement affirming that the information they are providing is true, that they are not submitting duplicate applications, and that they won't use federal benefits for unintended purposes. The document states that concealing information or making false statements can result in criminal and civil penalties.
A 2011 report by the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General identified $643 million in "potentially improper payments" through the Individuals and Households Program since Katrina. Government estimates of the rate of fraud in the program ranged from 8.56 percent to 16 percent.
Herman Smallwood says he willingly signed FEMA's anti-fraud form. While he awaits a decision on his appeal, he is still living in his damaged house, looking down at the cracks in the floor that opened up when the foundation shifted.
Space heaters ward off the chill on cold winter days.
"I can run a heater in every room," he says, "and it's still cold in here."
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