When most people think of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) what comes to mind is the assistance the agency provides before and after hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Part of their mission and the ways in which the assistance is supplied has been specified by the 1988 Stafford Act and before that, the Disaster Relief Act of 1974.
FEMA’s current procedures and requirements don’t always work for post-wildfire recovery needs, and a bill passed unanimously by the Senate Wednesday will help close some of those gaps. The FEMA Improvement, Reform, and Efficiency (FIRE) Act, S.3092, would help ensure that FEMA’s disaster preparedness and response efforts fully address the unique nature of wildfires and their impacts on communities.
If the bill is passed by the House of Representatives and signed by the President, FEMA would be able to pre-deploy resources during red flag warnings – periods of high fire danger, when catastrophic wildfires are most likely to start – just like they already do in advance of hurricane warnings.
The bill would also help ensure relocation assistance is accessible for public infrastructure in fire prone areas. It would improve FEMA’s response to wildfire-specific damage, such as repairing and mitigating contamination from damaged infrastructure.
If passed, it would have FEMA provide culturally-competent crisis counselors and case managers to ensure that underserved and disadvantaged communities receive equitable treatment when accessing federal disaster assistance. Tribal governments would be able to access financial assistance to upgrade their emergency operation centers, putting them on an equal standing with state and local governments.
When you have been impacted by a disaster of any kind you are frightened, scared, often very angry and the last thing you need is to fill out forms and answer numerous questions from strangers clamoring to HELP you. So why is it that the majority of our disaster assistance and recovery programs at all levels fail to understand that emotional issues can seldom be resolved by analytical processes?
At a hazards mitigation conference I once attended, one subject kept coming up (albeit often in side conversations): how can we do better with natural hazards preparedness and mitigation? At all levels of government and private industry, the fact that billions of dollars are being spent annually often with very little result is becoming a major concern. That the largest risk companies now estimate that the cost of hazards damage is starting to become incalculable is scaring even the wealthiest countries. The big elephant in the room was the fundamental question of whether it is even possible to understand a subject with massive emotional dynamics through analytical means.
Should this be approached in a very different way? Any victim of a disaster in which their world has imploded in 5 minutes is naturally frightened, upset, and scared. To introduce a program of any kind, no matter how well-intentioned, that does not explicitly recognize this adds additional trauma, leading to complex issues lasting for years.
Two of the presenters at the conference made a huge impact: elders from the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana; and Sallie Clark, a Commissioner for El Paso County, Colorado. Their messages were different, but interconnected. In sum, they both stressed the importance of knowing your community and reacting in both a human and efficient systems way, or as Sallie stated so eloquently “Yes, indeed we need to be efficient in our response to a disaster — but let’s not forget that sometimes they just need a hug.”
The Chitimacha (Sitimaxa, “people of the many waters”) are famous because when the FEMA team got to their reservation three weeks after hurricane Katrina, they had already taken care of most of the damage. Communication in the tribe took place mostly by word of mouth, with CB radio assistance. Within 24 hours after the storm had passed, all 1,100 members of the tribe had been contacted by a tribal council team and all needs, both physical and emotional, were being attended to. Rebuilding had started, and in many cases was complete. A major focus of the tribal council was on emotional support, and this ran consistently throughout everything they were doing.
Sallie was doing something similar after the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire devastated her Colorado Springs community. That wildfire was one of the most destructive in Colorado history. It took two lives, destroyed 347 homes, forced tens of thousands to evacuate, and insurance claims topped $450M. Sallie’s response: identify everyone impacted, ensure they have a case officer attending their needs both physical and emotional, and simply make sure they have a shoulder to cry on. She personally drove to evacuation shelters and made sure this was being done and gave anyone a hug who needed it. A truly shining example of “WE CARE!”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has recently awarded millions of dollars through their Disaster Mitigation Grant program.
Boulder County, Colorado
Boulder County will receive a $1.2 million Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant for two wildfire mitigation actions. The first is to create defensible space for approximately 500 properties. The second is hazardous fuels reduction in an area of about 160 acres that will provide further protection on 27 properties where defensible space creation was previously completed.
Homeowner efforts to create defensible space will not just be a one-time effort. They will join the county’s wildfire mitigation program, Wildfire Partners, to support continued maintenance of defensible space over the long-term and conduct comprehensive mitigation efforts to effectively reduce wildfire risk in a community that has been severely affected by wildfire.
FEMA is providing 75 percent of the project costs, a total of $1,215,630. Funding is provided through FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, which is designed to assist states, U.S. territories, federally-recognized tribes, and local communities in implementing a sustained pre-disaster natural hazard mitigation program. The goal is to reduce overall risk to the population and structures from future hazard events, while also reducing reliance on federal funding in future disasters.
The city of Ashland, Oregon will receive a $3 million Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant to create wildfire defensible space around 1,100 homes and to replace 23 wood shake roofs with ignition-resistant roof material.
The City of Ashland in Oregon’s Jackson County is in a high wildfire risk zone. In the fall of 2020, neighboring communities of Talent and Phoenix were devastated by the Almeda Fire, which burned 2,977 acres and destroyed over 2,300 structures.
This mitigation project will help protect structures from wildfires and will help homes in the Ashland area comply with recommended local best practices for wildfire risk reduction. Replacing wood shake roofs and providing defensible space to structures reduces the risk of wildfire spread and diminishes the likelihood of wildfires starting from embers. Once these highly flammable roofs are replaced, these types of roofs will no longer be allowed in Ashland.
The City is contributing a $1 million cost-share, making the total value of this grant $4 million.
The project includes hiring a project manager, preliminary assessments of identified homes, surveys for vegetation removal, scheduling and training of pre-approved contractors, removal of vegetation, and reconstruction of roofs.
Rolling Hills, California
A $1.1 million grant is going to the Los Angeles community of Rolling Hills. The funds will replace overhead power lines and poles with nearly 2,000 feet of underground cables and relocate transformers to an area with less wildfire risk. The Los Angeles Fire Department identified the area as a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone, the highest designation with the greatest fire risk.
The $1.5 million project includes a $1.1 million grant from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), with the remaining $381,000 from non-federal sources.
As we wrote last September, grants to mitigate wildfire risk and improve community resiliency is a worthwhile investment:
Provide grants to homeowners that are in areas with high risk from wildland fires. Pay a portion of the costs of improvements or retrofits to structures and the nearby vegetation to make the property more fire resistant. This could include the cost of removing some of the trees in order to have the crowns at least 18 feet apart if they are within 30 feet of the structures — many homeowners can’t afford the cost of complete tree removal.
But the limited amount of Federal taxpayer funds available must be distributed where they can get the most bang for the buck and assist a significant number of residents.
Rolling Hills is a gated community of private roads on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles where the median household income is $239,375 and the poverty rate is 1.6%. The project will reduce wildfire ignitions along 2,000 feet of power lines.
Boulder County has a median household income of $83,019 and a poverty rate of 10.7%. Their grant will mitigate hazards on 527 properties.
Ashland, Oregan has a median income of $56,315 and a poverty rate of 18.4%. More than 1,100 homes will be affected by the project.
Putting 2,000 feet of power lines underground in Rolling Hills could reduce the chance of poorly designed or maintained electrical lines starting fires. But a case could be made that the project should not rank high enough nationwide to prevent other grants from being approved that would have a much greater beneficial effect on larger numbers of people with far less disposable income. In this affluent Los Angeles community improvements on the electrical lines, in this case, should be funded by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Lower income applicants were about four times more likely to be denied than those with higher incomes
Jefferson Public Radio has an article by April Ehrlich who reported that after the disastrous wildfires in Oregon in 2020 the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied about 57 percent of the 27,000 applications for federal assistance.
As an example, a woman who had lived in her home since 2012 was denied help because, as the letter from FEMA said, “You are not eligible for housing assistance because you did not prove you lived in the damaged home at the time of the disaster.” The homeowner, Maria Meunier, is one of the 14,000 Oregonians whose applications were not approved, but she is one of only 290 people who appealed the denials. Only 40 of the appeals were approved, but Ms. Meunier’s was not one of them.
Below is an excerpt from the article at Jefferson Public Radio:
Oregon’s high rates of denial are on par with previous natural disasters. FEMA denied about 60% of Puerto Rican disaster assistance applicants after Hurricane Maria. A study by Texas Hausers, a housing nonprofit, found that FEMA denied a quarter of disaster applicants after Hurricane Harvey hit there.
Many of the people who have been denied assistance are low-income. Among Hurricane Harvey applicants, people whose annual incomes were below $15,000 had a 46% denial rate. People with annual incomes exceeding $70,000 had a 10% denial rate.
JPR has a pending data request with FEMA to obtain income and demographic information about Oregon applicants who were impacted by wildfires in 2020.
Following Oregon’s wildfires, FEMA issued press releases encouraging people to appeal. They said the appeals process could be as simple as correcting a typo or providing a missing document.
Disaster victim advocates and legal aid attorneys say appealing FEMA’s denials is anything but simple; and that by denying so many people the first time, the agency is using a complex bureaucratic process to weed out people who likely need the most help.
“People who’ve been affected by a disaster are dealing with trauma,” said attorney Tracy Figueroa with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “They’re trying to pull the documents together, and just hearing “no” from one entity or another can shut things down. They don’t know how to navigate the bureaucracy. They’re just done.”
Figueroa and other legal aid attorneys say applicants almost always need an attorney to help them find and deliver documents, provide context for their living situations, and continually follow up with FEMA representatives.
People with limited resources are less likely to have access to a lawyer. Disaster-prone states like Texas, where Figueroa has worked through 18 federal disasters, have teams of legal aid attorneys that help low-income disaster victims. But in states like Oregon, which rarely sees a disaster as destructive as the Almeda Fire, there are few private or nonprofit attorneys who are experienced in FEMA disaster assistance.
FEMA’s denial letters aren’t always clear about how applicants can amend their applications. For example, several Oregon applicants told JPR that they were denied assistance because they have homeowner’s insurance; a common misunderstanding, since FEMA often lists homeowners insurance as a reason for denial. Rather, FEMA can help people with homeowners insurance, but those applicants need to follow a few other steps first. They need to see what their insurance will cover and provide that documentation to FEMA, then they need to apply for a loan through the Small Business Administration, even if they don’t intend to take out a loan. At that point, they could go back to FEMA with an appeal.
Challenges with mobile homes
Jackson County officials say two-thirds of the homes destroyed by the Almeda Fire were manufactured homes. Like Meunier, mobile homeowners face a number of challenges in applying for disaster assistance. They need to provide months-long proof that they paid space rent, a copy of their lease agreement and a title to their home, which isn’t always available because of the generally informal process of buying a mobile home.
“For people who are living in mobile homes, they may not have those title documents,” said Sarah Saadian of the Low Income Housing Coalition. “Even if your state may require you to register it, it just doesn’t happen like that. Sometimes the park owner might have it. Sometimes it’s never delivered when the home is delivered.”
Saadian and the Low Income Housing Coalition are encouraging FEMA and Congress to enact legislation that allows mobile homeowners to self-certify homeownership in lieu of title documents, a process that had been allowed after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. FEMA only allows self-attestation in U.S. territories, not in the states.
Mobile home parks have historically been located in areas that are susceptible to natural disasters, including wildfires and hurricanes.
“They’re in areas where wildfires occur and where flooding can occur because they’re tucked away,” said attorney Ilene Jacobs with the California Rural Legal Assistance. “Some of them are quite substandard and are in areas adjacent to a highway.”
The Almeda Fire burned through the Bear Creek Greenway, a riparian area and bike path running along the Interstate 5 freeway. Several manufactured home parks abutted the greenway and freeway before the fire raged through those properties.
The National Risk Index is a new, online mapping application from FEMA that identifies communities most at risk from 18 natural hazards. The application visualizes natural hazard risk metrics and includes data about expected annual losses, social vulnerabilities and community resilience.
The data is at the county and census tract level and made available via geographic information system (GIS) services for custom analyses.
The system combines the risk from 18 factors to come up with one rating for each county or census tract.
If you go to the site it may take some time to load. It worked, slowly, on my desktop computer with a fast internet connection, but not at all on my cell phone. At one time I got a “503 Service Temporarily Unavailable.”
You can zoom in and click on a county or census tract to see more details about each of the 18 risk factors that appear in the left sidebar. If you go to the site and the map loads, click on County or Census Tracts, then Info.
It would be helpful if you could toggle each of the 18 hazards on or off. For example, if you simply want to see where the risk is highest for wildfires, you can’t display that risk individually on the map. You have to click on each county then scroll down the left sidebar to see the data just for that location.
FEMA said the information can apply to responses to flooding, wildfires, and typhoons
Last week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released the COVID-19 Pandemic Operational Guidance for the 2020 Hurricane Season to help emergency managers and public health officials best prepare for disasters while continuing to respond to and recover from coronavirus (COVID-19). In a news release, FEMA said that while the document focuses on hurricane season preparedness, most planning considerations can also be applied to any disaster operation in the COVID-19 environment, including no-notice incidents, spring flooding, wildfire seasons, and typhoon response.
Specifically, the guide:
Describes anticipated challenges to disaster operations posed by COVID-19;
Highlights planning considerations for emergency managers based on current challenges;
Outlines how FEMA plans to adapt response and recovery operations;
Creates a shared understanding of expectations between FEMA and emergency mangers; and,
Includes guidance, checklists and resources to support emergency managers response and recovery planning.
The 59-page document does not have a lot of details, for example specifics of how to set up an evacuation center, but there are lists of items to consider.
As an example, here is the section on Evacuation Planning:
State, Local, Tribal & Territorial (SLTT) organizations should review evacuation plans and consider:
Assessing community demographics and identifying areas facing high risk, including considerations for those under stay-at-home orders, at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19, individuals with disabilities, and others with access and functional needs.
Reviewing clearance times and decision timelines, with COVID-19 planning considerations, such as mass care and sheltering plans.
Considering impacts of business closures/restrictions along evacuation routes; limited restaurant/lodging availability will place extra stress on state and local officials and may require unprecedented assistance to travelers.
Maintaining availability of mass transit and paratransit services that provide a transportation option for those individuals who are unable to use the fixed-route bus or rail system for evacuation of people with disabilities in accordance with CDC guidance and social distancing requirements.
Using EMPG-S funding to modify evacuation plans to account for limited travel options and increased time needed for evacuation of health care facilities.
Targeting evacuation orders and communication messages to reduce the number of people voluntarily evacuating from areas outside a declared evacuation area.
Developing communication plans for communities likely impacted by hurricane season or other emergent incidents for any updates or alterations to evacuation strategies, and ensuring communications are provided in a way that is accessible to people with disabilities and limited English proficiency.
Reviewing available alternate care sites and federal medical stations as potential evacuation sites or longer-term solution for hospitals and medical facilities, if needed, and considering staffing needed to support facilities.
Determining logistics and resource requirements to support government-assisted evacuations.
Reviewing, expanding, and/or establishing agreements with NGOs, agencies, volunteers, and private sector vendors that will be needed for evacuee support and ensuring partners are prepared to deliver services in a COVID-19 environment.
Engaging with neighboring states and jurisdictions to coordinate cross-border movement of evacuees in large-scale evacuations.