Will we see “transformational change"? That’s what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says it expects with reforms to disaster assistance to support survivors that went into effect on March 22. Though we have yet to see these sweeping changes fully implemented, we are optimistic that they will help provide a more streamlined and equitable recovery process. 

The policy changes enacted in this Interim Final Rule (IFR), spurred by President Biden’s Executive Order on Addressing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities, include new regulatory text that is legally binding now that it’s gone into effect. These long-awaited changes were informed by FEMA’s “equity sprint” in 2021 and further listening tours in disaster-impacted communities in 2022. 

On April 4, FEMA and Small Business Administration (SBA) leaders joined the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) for a webinar sharing information about the new rules with the philanthropic sector in a webinar, “A conversation for funders on reforms for disaster assistance to help survivors recover faster.”   

What Is Included in These Reforms?

The webinar focused on several areas of reform included in these updates: 

  • Establishing new benefits: FEMA standardizes “serious needs assistance” (formerly critical needs assistance) by making a $750 payment available in all federally declared disasters that receive Individual Assistance. In other words, eligible households will have quick relief with cash to access essential items like food, water, and more. Additionally, FEMA added displacement assistance. This helps disaster survivors who cannot return home following a federally declared disaster by providing upfront financial assistance that helps survivors pay for immediate housing needs without applicants needing to show proof of a rental agreement. Survivors who access Displacement Assistance may still be able to access rental assistance if their displacement is prolonged and they enter into a rental contract. 
  • Cutting red tape and expanding eligibility: This helps build trust and expand access, so we are particularly interested in seeing the results of implementing changes here. FEMA will no longer require survivors to apply for and be denied a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan before consideration for some forms of assistance. (SBA loans are still a viable option for some survivors, and we learned more about how and why during the webinar.) Survivors who are underinsured and receive less from their insurance company than they need to recover fully can seek assistance from FEMA to help them cover repairs that insurance might not. Homeowners who do not possess a clear title but have other satisfactory means of proving ownership of their home will now be eligible for Emergency Home Repair assistance. FEMA has also expanded “habitability criteria” for survivors, which means they may now qualify for assistance even if their home had pre-existing damage or “deferred maintenance.” Survivors with disabilities or medical conditions may also secure support to make their homes more accessible than they were pre-disaster. Entrepreneurs or the self-employed may now qualify for financial support to replace tools and equipment. Personal or family computers damaged by a disaster may be eligible for replacement. Survivors may also receive assistance for additional computers required for work, school, or access and functional needs.  
  • Simplifying the application process: Receiving FEMA support has had many barriers, often preventing those with the greatest needs from accessing resources. FEMA will now streamline temporary housing assistance applications, remove barriers for late applicants, and simplify the process for appeals of FEMA decisions.  

What Should Funders Know?

Though equitably distributed and flexible philanthropic funds remain critically important to community recovery from disaster, the resources available through government programs are more extensive as a result of the new Interim Final Rule. During the webinar, CDP director of domestic funds, Sally Ray, led a discussion with a panel of funders, including Abe Diaz with Amazon and Carrie Walker with the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, to discuss how they anticipate these reforms changing how their organizations react after a disaster.

The panel agreed that making federal funds more streamlined and easily accessible will allow philanthropy to direct funding more strategically to build community resilience. Here are some things to consider as these changes are implemented: 

  • Though these changes are significant, they still do not address all the needs of those affected by federally declared disasters. Philanthropic organizations should prioritize support that addresses recovery gaps, particularly among marginalized populations without access to these resources.
  • It’s possible with these streamlined processes that people affected by disasters will move more quickly from the response phase to the recovery phase. Funders need to be attuned to how the process moves and help support this potentially faster recovery process. For example, consider providing bridge funding for the disaster case management process to get the ball rolling sooner. Abe from Amazon also noted that his group is already moving more quickly to provide products used in recovery for disaster-affected areas and that they will heed the call of the community to be timely in what they provide. 
  • Most disasters that devastate communities do not rise to the level of being “federally declared,” so federal resources will not be deployed in many cases anyway. Carrie noted that it is critical that philanthropy support communities where resources are hard to come by to provide recovery opportunities for all. Abe added that it will still take time to build trust in FEMA in some communities, too, and that some segments of the population simply will never trust the government. If they don’t trust, they won’t seek out these resources, but may still need other help.
  • All three panelists agreed that all funders should continue to address the systemic issues that marginalize communities. If we work together to address these issues before a hazardous event, we will be less likely to have a disaster in the first place. 
  • Finally, philanthropy should continue to advocate for more consistent and sustainable federal funding for disasters – before, during, and after events. These FEMA changes are a huge step in the right direction, but much more is needed for our communities to prepare for and withstand the ever-increasing frequency and intensity of disasters due to climate change.  

Throughout the webinar it was noted that it’s important for everyone to provide comments on these changes through the public comment period, which will last through July 22, 2024, to affirm the need to support disaster survivors and communities through an equity lens. Affirming FEMA’s legal authority in your public comment may help if future administrations attempt to contest or reverse the reforms enacted by this IFR through the courts.