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A faster and more equitable disaster recovery system is possible

A faster and more equitable disaster recovery system is possible
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Many American communities do not fully understand their disaster risk when faced with natural disasters. Low-income communities and communities of color are most severely affected by natural disasters, but they only learn how poorly the system works for them after disastrous events. As a result, families and individuals suffer unnecessarily, often for years, and many just give up. 

In an op-ed previously published by The Hill, the authors make a compelling argument for prioritizing low and moderate income families after disasters. The authors deeply understand the issues and they highlight several opportunities for public and private sector innovation that will shrink the time between disaster and recovery, ensuring fewer survivors “slip through the cracks.” A single application for assistance, shared between responding government agencies at the federal, state and local levels would help simplify the process for survivors, but more can be done. 

The authors mention two significant challenges that must be overcome: expanding access to federal resources in a more equitable manner, and providing faster assistance to those who lack access to savings and/or credit.  

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Below I offer two recommendations that would amplify the effects of a single application for federal assistance and directly address these problems. 

Expanding access to federal resources in an equitable manner 

For homeowners, access to federal assistance begins with a FEMA application and a home damage assessment. Prior to COVID-19, FEMA relied on contract inspectors, deployed to disaster impacted communities, to inspect damage to homes one home at a time. This method is slow, inconsistent and is subject to human error and bias. 

Since COVID-19, FEMA has resorted to having homeowners self report damage to FEMA personnel over the phone. FEMA has not shared the call script with the public. Most survivors are neither construction nor disaster experts. For many, FEMA assistance (average award $4,300) may be the only kind they receive until Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) funds arrive (years in the future, maybe never). If survivors answer questions incorrectly, it could prevent them receiving all the assistance they may be eligible for. When damages are underreported and undercompensated, vulnerable survivors begin a long and uncertain road to recovery with even fewer resources. 

Meanwhile the insurance industry uses aerial imagery, flyovers, satellites, image-to-estimate and other technology to assess damage and pay claims faster and more accurately than ever before and much faster than traditional government assistance. FEMA has access to incredible technology and should expand its capabilities. If FEMA adopts similar technology and practices, low-income survivors will receive faster and more accurate assistance more quickly and with less risk of human error or bias. 

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Lack of liquidity/access to credit for the most vulnerable 

Consolidating duplicative applications and ensuring that damage assessments are faster and more accurate will expand the amount of early FEMA resources available to low and moderate income communities. Expanded access to assistance will allow many to recover more quickly and predictably. 

Still, the most vulnerable survivors will require long term housing repair programs that take two years or more to operationalize at the state and local level. These programs do not offer clarity or predictability to homeowners who urgently need assistance. Those without insurance or access to private resources, are left staring into an abyss of uncertainty. 

When individual rebuilding and recovery efforts are delayed and unpredictable, it causes the potential for community deterioration at every level. Tax bases shrink as many survivors relocate, public services suffer, opportunities to attract additional investment become scarcer and, most depressingly, those survivors who can least afford to wait are served last and least predictably.

But this too can be solved. This two-plus year gap can be erased through a Recovery Acceleration Fund. 

Many CDBG-DR programs include a reimbursement pathway, where eligible homeowners who made well-documented repairs out of pocket can be reimbursed some or all of their expenses when state and local CDBG-DR funded programs are up and running. 

Charitable and social impact investment can create a Recovery Acceleration Fund to make repairs for low and moderate income families who will be eligible for CDBG-DR assistance when it arrives but cannot self-fund repairs today. This would reduce overall cost to taxpayers by making critical repairs more quickly, preventing the rising costs of repair when homes are left untouched for months or years after disasters. More importantly it would erase the two-plus years of delay and uncertainty for families who can least afford to wait. Most importantly it could create a new public private partnership model for social impact investment, one that prioritizes the reduction of needless human suffering in low-income communities when help is needed most. 

Without a doubt, these are challenging times for our country. But our nation has proven time and again that it can adapt to new challenges and overcome any obstacle. Disaster recovery can be improved but it will require innovation and new approaches. And the time is now. 

Reese May, is the chief strategy and innovation officer for SBP, a national disaster resilience and recovery organization. He leads SBP’s disaster preparedness and recovery efforts across the country, advises state and local decision-makers on effective long-term disaster recovery programs and advocates for policy change at the federal level. He is a Truman National Security Fellow