FEMA has a long history of inequity. Experts say it’s time to focus on alternatives.
FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), the governmental agency responsible for providing Americans with care and support following extreme weather events, has a long history of inequity in its aid dispersal process.
In November of 2020, the agency was approached by its own advisory council with a list of recommendations for how the organization can begin to address some of these structural issues.
Since then, there has been a slew of pushback suggesting that the organization’s initiative towards implementing any of the recommendations has been disappointingly slow.
Anna Weber is a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with a particular focus on helping communities mitigate hazards caused by extreme weather and a changing climate.
“I think one thing that pretty much everybody agrees [on] — and there is overwhelming research for, as well as just the lived experience of communities who have been affected by disasters — is that FEMA has policies and programs that are inequitable,” said Weber. “Not just in terms of an inequitable distribution of funding and resources, but also the actual policies and programs, that are supposed to be assisting disaster survivors and preventing the impacts of the next disaster, [but] have actually exacerbated inequities within communities.”.
Research shows, for example, that the FEMA aid disbursement process favors certain identities over others, for instance, if you are wealthy or white. This is mainly because FEMA calculates aid using a cost-benefit analysis, meaning that funds are more likely to be given to those whose property is “worth” more, like homeowners, under the guise that investing in repairing the damage on that property would lead to more of a return on their investment.
In this way, through this method, rich and privileged neighborhoods stay wealthy, while poor and disenfranchised ones become even further divested. In fact, studies show that white families are more likely to become even wealthier following extreme weather events, because of these sorts of evaluative methods.
Experts, like Weber, say individuals can navigate around these inequalities by seeking out resources from their local or state governments for resources, in addition to, or rather than, FEMA.
“I think FEMA is overwhelmed. It takes them five to ten years to close out a disaster declaration,” said Russel L Honoré, a retired lieutenant general and expert on climate change and disaster preparedness.
Honore oversaw the military relief efforts in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. He has since advocated for climate action and disaster preparedness and recovery reform in the United States.
He said that despite improvements to FEMA since Katrina, in his home state, Louisiana, FEMA still needs major reforms.
“We had Hurricane Ida almost a year ago. We still have over 5000 people living in trailers, some living in tents still waiting on trailers because they haven’t gotten a FEMA trailer yet,” said Honoré. “Recovery regardless of how you cut it is a living hell.”
“One thing that can be really helpful is for folks to take a little bit of time to get familiar with the sorts of programs that are available at their state and local level — who their local emergency management department is, what they do in your community, how to contact them and the types of supports that they might be able to provide — so that you’re not starting from scratch after something terrible happens,” said Weber.
One of the main ways Weber says individuals, families and communities alike can best address these inequities is to deeply care for and about the wellbeing of one another and fostering a sense of community resiliency, while still holding these larger systems and institutions accountable.
“One of the most important things we can do is address these underlying inequities, because that’s really what drives vulnerability,” said Weber.
“I think we need a FEMA that deals with Hurricane preparedness and response — meaning get people ready, get them evacuated, shelter them someplace. But for recovery, when you get into rebuilding people’s homes, we need a whole different agency,” said Honore.
Many social-justice minded environmentalists agree that the most effective way of addressing the inequities following extreme weather events is to address root issues — such as racism and classism.
And Weber agrees, saying that investing in communities, through increasing their resilience to extreme weather, will undoubtedly impact other areas of community life.
“There are considerations that have to do with housing, education, health care, voting rights — every other aspect of social justice is involved in building up the capacity of communities,” she said.
According to her, the goal is to empower communities, overall, in any aspect.
“So that they are better able to, not just respond and sort of survive disasters, but also have the agency to make decisions [and] thrive in a climate change world.”