As warming fuels disasters, FEMA relief often favors white people
Roy Vaussine and Charlotte Biagas live in modest, single-story homes about a dozen miles apart in southwest Louisiana. When Hurricane Laura tore through their community in August, the damage was nearly identical. A tree crashed through the roof of each house. Neither had insurance. Each sought help from the federal government.
At that point, their stories diverge. The Federal Emergency Management Agency initially gave Vaussine $17,000 in assistance; Biagas and her husband, Norman, got $7,000.
Their situations are different in another respect: Vaussine is white, and the Biagases are Black.
A growing body of research shows that FEMA, the government agency responsible for helping Americans recover from disasters, often helps white disaster victims more than people of color, even when the amount of damage is the same. Not only do individual white Americans often receive more aid from FEMA, so do the communities in which they live, according to several recent studies based on federal data.
Leaders at FEMA are wrestling with the complicated question of why these disparities exist and what to do about them. The problem seems to stem from complex systemic factors, such as a real estate market that often places higher values on properties in communities with many white residents, or the difficulty of navigating the federal bureaucracy, which tends to favors people and communities that have more resources from the beginning.
The impact from this disparity is long-lasting. White people in counties with significant disaster damage that received FEMA help saw their personal wealth jump years later, while Black residents lost wealth, research published in 2018 shows.
The imbalance comes as climate change fuels more frequent and more destructive storms, wildfires and other disasters, and marginalized communities tend to be both the most exposed to damage and the least able to recover financially.
FEMA declined to comment on individual cases, citing privacy concerns, and said it had created an internal working group to examine the issue. In April, it asked the public for examples of policies “that perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and/or other underserved groups,” as well as ideas for improvement.
“We are advancing this work,” said Justin Knighten, FEMA’s director of external affairs, adding that the agency is working on a comprehensive public response. “That is a top priority for the administrator.”
The racial disparities in FEMA’s disaster assistance present a test for President Joe Biden, who has made fighting both racial inequality and climate change central themes of his administration.
“All FEMA programs and policies need to be equitable, due to the disproportionate impact of disasters on marginalized communities,” said Chauncia Willis, co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, a nonprofit group in Georgia. “It needs to become a core goal.”
The pressure on FEMA to address racial disparities is growing. The Government Accountability Office is looking at FEMA’s actions “to ensure more equitable outcomes” in its disaster programs. The agency’s own advisory council said FEMA isn’t meeting its legal requirement to provide aid without discrimination on racial or other grounds. During her Senate confirmation, the first question faced by Deanne Criswell, Biden’s choice to run FEMA, was how she would ensure that Black, brown and Latino survivors get equal access to disaster aid.
“It is unacceptable that minority communities not only feel the impact of natural disasters far more severely than others, but they also often have more difficulty obtaining assistance from the federal government,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
The research so far suggests that the scale of the problem is immense.
After a disaster, FEMA’s Individual Assistance program offers grants to survivors who do not have insurance, providing as much as $36,000 for home repairs. Before giving money, FEMA or its contractors inspect a property for damage and then determine whether that damage was caused by the disaster and how much to provide in assistance.
Ethan Raker, who recently earned a doctorate at Harvard and will be taking up an assistant professor position at the University of British Columbia this summer, used a public record request to obtain 5.4 million applications for FEMA assistance from homeowners affected by hurricanes between 2005 and 2016. He found racial disparities at every stage of the process.