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Biden-Harris administration reforms disaster assistance for expedited recovery

January 22, 2024

Reforms to the FEMA individual assistance program announced

The Biden-Harris Administration, led by Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, has announced significant reforms to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Individual Assistance program.

These updates aim to provide quicker access to funds, expanded eligibility for property and home repairs, and an easier application process for survivors recovering from disasters.

Enhanced support for disaster recovery and climate change response

In response to the escalating frequency of extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change, these reforms are designed to offer survivors faster and more straightforward access to essential resources.

Secretary Mayorkas explained the rationale behind these changes: “In the past, the limitations of federal assistance have delayed disaster recovery for too many, especially communities that are disproportionately affected by disasters.

“That’s why the Biden-Harris Administration has been determined to update our programs to ensure we provide disaster assistance to the people who need it when they need it most.”

Key updates to the FEMA assistance program

The reforms include establishing new benefits such as the Serious Needs Assistance and Displacement Assistance programs, which provide flexible funding directly to survivors.

They also involve cutting red tape and expanding eligibility criteria, thus reaching more people and aiding faster recovery.

Additionally, FEMA has removed the requirement for survivors to apply for a U.S. Small Business Administration loan before considering certain types of financial assistance.

Establish new benefits that provide flexible funding directly to survivors when they need it most

Introducing Serious Needs Assistance

The FEMA reform introduces the Serious Needs Assistance program, replacing the Critical Needs Assistance program with a more standardized approach.

This cash relief initiative will be available in all disasters that receive Individual Assistance.

It offers a $750 payment for households with serious needs, aimed at covering immediate expenses such as sheltering, evacuation, and basic household needs.

This payment is in addition to other eligible assistance based on unique survivor circumstances.

Launching Displacement Assistance

FEMA’s new Displacement Assistance benefit addresses the immediate housing needs of survivors who cannot return home following a disaster.

It provides survivors with up-front funds, granting them flexibility in choosing immediate housing options, such as staying with family or friends, until they can secure a rental for long-term recovery.

Cut red tape and expand eligibility to reach more people and help them recover faster, while building back stronger

Removing Loan Application Requirements

The reform eliminates the requirement for survivors to apply for a U.S.

Small Business Administration (SBA) loan before considering certain types of financial assistance.

This change simplifies the process, allowing survivors to apply for FEMA and SBA assistance simultaneously, reducing confusion and expediting aid.

Aiding Underinsured Survivors

FEMA has streamlined insurance-related rules to assist survivors who receive insufficient insurance company support.

The new approach allows financial assistance up to the $42,500 cap, covering costs not reimbursed by insurance, including deductibles and underinsured losses.

Simplifying Assistance for Entrepreneurs

The process for entrepreneurs, gig workers, and self-employed individuals to reopen their businesses post-disaster has been simplified.

FEMA may now provide initial financial support for replacing disaster-damaged tools and equipment, subject to the $42,500 maximum cap.

Expanding Habitability Criteria

FEMA has broadened its definition of “habitability” to include repairs to homes with pre-existing conditions.

This allows survivors to qualify for FEMA support for home repairs, regardless of pre-existing conditions, ensuring homes are safe and sanitary.

Making Accessibility Improvements

FEMA funding can now be used by survivors with disabilities to make accessibility improvements to their homes.

This enhancement allows for better living conditions post-disaster, exceeding pre-disaster accessibility standards.

Simplify the application process to meet survivors’ individual needs and meet people where they are

Removing Barriers for Late Applicants

FEMA has removed the documentation requirement for survivors who submit late applications, acknowledging the challenges they face.

Streamlining Temporary Housing Assistance Applications

Documentation requirements for continued temporary housing assistance have been reduced.

Individual caseworkers will provide support throughout the recovery process, improving transparency on rental support timelines.

Simplifying the Process for Appeals

The process for appealing FEMA’s decisions has been simplified, no longer requiring a signed, written appeal letter, only supporting documentation.

Website Enhancements for Easier Navigation

FEMA has revamped the DisasterAssistance.gov and Transitional Sheltering Assistance websites, making them more user-friendly and accessible.

The updated DisasterAssistance.gov now offers streamlined navigation and individualized information collection, while the Transitional Sheltering Assistance website provides improved features for finding temporary lodging.

FSJA Comment

The Biden-Harris Administration’s reform of FEMA’s Individual Assistance program marks a significant shift in disaster response and recovery efforts in the United States.

These changes, addressing the growing frequency and severity of climate-induced disasters, underscore a proactive approach to disaster management.

By focusing on expediting financial support, expanding eligibility, and streamlining application processes, the Administration aims to ensure more efficient and equitable recovery for all affected communities.

Particularly noteworthy is the incorporation of feedback from survivors and stakeholders, reflecting a responsive and adaptive policy approach.

These reforms not only facilitate quicker recovery for individuals and communities but also signify a broader commitment to addressing the challenges posed by a changing climate.

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