When fire tears through a community and the president declares a major disaster, that opens the way for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to roll in to help. But that help, by design of Congress, is quite limited.
“I believe that too many people have a misimpression that FEMA is there to fix it all or to make them whole” following a disaster, said Jenni Campbell, executive director of Los Angeles Region Community Recovery Organization (LARCRO), a nonprofit that works with FEMA and other organizations to coordinate long-term recovery for fire-ravaged communities.
Survivors of disasters like wildfires who qualify for FEMA aid can typically expect a few thousand dollars for home repairs or other needs while they work to rebuild their lives. But even those people who make it through the confusing application process will have to show they had little in the way of insurance, income or borrowing ability to receive the aid.
Only about half of applicants are approved, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Take the case of David Harshbarger. His three-bedroom manufactured home on a large lot in Juniper Hills was one of 87 that burned on Sept. 18, 2020 when the Bobcat Fire crested the ridgeline of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Harshbarger was tempted to try to save the house he’d lived in for several decades, but all he had for a water supply was what the water truck put in the tank out back on its last delivery. The fire was moving too fast, he said.
“The fire came down like a fire storm, 300-mile-an-hour winds, 3,000 degree temperature, nothing in its path, as you can see, could survive,” Harshbarger said.
He worked in the film industry for 30 years as a propmaster, and as we toured his property he pointed out the place where his 48-foot trailer full of props used in scores of movies had been. All those items burned, along with the ones in a steel storage container.
All that was left were a few sci-fi props like a small rocket made from metal scrap and the rusted iron rims of some Western wagon wheels. “I had a cannon from the 'Last of the Mohicans’ on that side of the house, a big fiberglass cannon that melted,” Harshbarger said.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Harshbarger did what so many disaster survivors are advised to do — he registered with FEMA and applied for aid through its Individuals and Households Program.
But Harshbarger didn’t get any financial aid from FEMA. And that is not surprising.
Millions Apply For FEMA Cash, Less Than Half Receive Any
A federal Government Accountability Office audit last year found that most of those who apply have too much income or insurance to qualify.
That was the case with Harshbarger. He didn’t expect to receive cash assistance from FEMA because he was insured, and his homeowner policy covered his stay in a hotel the first weeks after his home burned.
Between 2016 and 2018, survivors received about $6 billion in FEMA assistance payments and were placed in 12,805 temporary housing units. Most of the applicants were uninsured and most had incomes under $50,000, a Feb. 2021 GAO report said.
More than half of the 4.4 million people who applied to FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program for cash assistance were denied, according to the GAO report.
Some 2.4 million applicants were turned away because their property did not sustain enough damage to meet the program requirements, or they couldn't provide enough evidence of their losses.
But of the nearly 2 million people who were approved for the Individuals and Households Program between 2016 and 2018, the payouts were fairly small. On average a homeowner got about $4,200 and a renter $1,700 in assistance.
Confusing Directions To Apply For SBA Loans
The GAO audit made another point about the obstacles people encounter pursuing federal assistance. It said that too many applicants for FEMA aid drop out during the process because FEMA’s messaging is confusing.
The biggest source of confusion is the mandate that applicants for FEMA aid apply for Small Business Administration Loans — and be fully or partially denied a loan — in order to qualify for FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program assistance.
Courtesy of the Government Accountability Office
“It's very confusing …. that is a piece [of FEMA rules] that still boggles my mind,” Campbell, the LARCRO executive director, said.
People who do not run small businesses do not understand why they would need to apply for a loan from the SBA, she said.
FEMA’s rules, which are set by Congress under the Stafford Act, bar FEMA from duplicating the resources a disaster survivor has in the way of income, insurance or loans. Hence the direction to seek a loan from the SBA, which has the internal machinery to issue loans and manage repayments.
FEMA Aid Won’t Rebuild Your Destroyed Home
Once a person is deemed to be sufficiently without income or insurance to qualify for FEMA assistance, that aid is still quite limited.
The aid is limited to being spent on making your home safely habitable and both the need and expenses have to be documented. And not every house would get the same amount of repairs.
For example, a couple with some insurance living in a larger home would get less aid than a family of five that is uninsured living in the same house.
The payments max out at $36,000. And that’s hardly enough to replace a burned home in Southern California.
It could be enough to make a fire-damaged home habitable, though, if only part of the home was burned, or if the damage was limited to a portion of the roof and smoke damage, for example.
Renters who are displaced in a disaster and who don’t have insurance or other means of paying rent can get up to 18 months of housing assistance from FEMA that could cover a replacement dwelling at market rate. In limited circumstances, FEMA could provide manufactured housing, as well.
Courtesy of the Government Accountability Office
FEMA has a second program that can provide eligible homeowners or renters up to another $36,000 to cover other needs. Its Other Needs Assistance program can cover personal property losses, medical, dental or funeral expenses, child care, transportation losses, and moving and storage, according to FEMA spokeswoman Veronica Verde. Again, the applicant would first have to apply for and be turned down for an SBA loan and not have other insurance or income to cover those things before FEMA can offer Other Needs help.
“Whatever the insurance pays, we can’t duplicate those benefits,” Verde said.
FEMA’s Helpful Non-Cash Benefits To Fire Survivors
One of the most valuable non-cash benefits a person can get from FEMA comes when it funds a locally-based disaster case management organization for survivors, helping them get access to a wide range of services.
Under that arrangement, professional social workers interview the survivors, assess their needs, help them navigate applications for FEMA aid, and refer them to mental health counseling, legal aid, and even volunteer help rebuilding their homes. Those services don’t come directly from FEMA but from a network of state and local governments, donors and nonprofits.
For example, a local FEMA-funded case management organization could receive the proceeds from a fundraiser and distribute them to clients who need them.
Campbell, of the recovery organization LARCRO, said she is trying to find residents in Juniper Hills to take the lead in forming such an organization, known as Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster.
“We need community leaders to come forward and keep driving this process forward in order to leverage the resources” that are available, she said.
And Campbell is not surprised that such an organization has not formed in the year since the Bobcat Fire. The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for groups to form, she said. Some of the fire survivors moved away and are no longer involved in Juniper Hills. And it can take fire survivors many months to get out of the optimistic “hero and honeymoon” stage of having survived a fire to get to where they have a better understanding of their needs.
Until that happens, the survivors of the Bobcat Fire are more or less on their own.
Harshbarger’s daughter, Charli Transue, is volunteering as a liaison to a potential long-term recovery group, but is not prepared to take on the lead role right now.
Charli Transue and her father David Harshbarger with his statue of St. Francis of Assisi on the fire-scarred property in Juniper Hills where his home burned in the Bobcat Fire.Sharon McNary/LAist
Back at Harshbarger’s burned-over property, the scorched remains of some Joshua trees that are common on his side of the mountain are starting to show some new blooms.
State and local authorities working in conjunction with FEMA arranged to clear burned-over lots, which is another community benefit that can come from being declared a federal disaster.
Now that the site of Harshbarger’s destroyed home has been cleared, he has chosen a place for a boulder he’ll sandblast to make an engraved gravestone to mark where his wife’s ashes will be buried.
“We’re going to put Gladys right about here,” Harshbarger said, pointing to a rock-bordered plot that also holds the remains of his father and several beloved family pets.
Harshbarger said he believes that the stress of the fire and loss of their home hastened his wife’s death from cancer in June.
Looking ahead, Harshbarger said his insurance will not be sufficient to complete construction on a replacement home, and he is overqualified to receive FEMA cash aid. So he will be looking into taking out a low-interest disaster loan from the Small Business Administration.