Urban Wire Improving the disaster aid application process will ensure victims aren’t left behind
Carlos Martín, Daniel Teles
Display Date

Media Name: gettyimages-841056242x.jpg

Amelia Adams of Texas Housers contributed to this post.

After Hurricane Harvey swept through Texas last year, a husband and wife who were separated but living in the same home with their six children were improperly advised at a local Disaster Recovery Center to apply separately for FEMA aid. This direction led to the denial of both of their applications, delaying their ability to obtain desperately needed assistance after the disaster.

The way that households self-identify and provide information about themselves for a governmental program to determine their eligibility for and eventually receive assistance after a disaster can be a complicated and confusing process.

Although the Department of Housing and Urban Development grantees’ recovery programs for the 2017 disasters have yet to launch, Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration aid programs processed applicants immediately, typically up to 60 days and six months after the event, respectively. Disaster-affected households—many of whom are suffering physical wounds or mental trauma from the event—must sign up during this short window.

This short timeframe for applications combined with additional challenges facing certain groups and complicated processes can mean disaster victims do not receive the help they need. But additional resources and small fixes can improve the application process and ensure people don’t fall through the cracks of the disaster safety net.

step 3 applying

Click here to view a larger version of the graphic above.

Who might struggle to meet aid application requirements?

FEMA has expanded application processes to cover a variety of media, including internet, smart phone, and telephone hotlines as well as in-person applications at Disaster Recovery Centers set up after the event. Occasionally, teams may also be sent out to identify applicants and input their applications.

But these channels may not be accessible to hard-to-serve populations, including people with limited English proficiency, people who are physically challenged (including the elderly), people who have trouble reading and writing, people with residence challenges like the homeless or dislocated renters, and people without broadband internet access.

For these cases, federal agencies have provided a variety of guidance and tools to reduce the incidences of omitted households. These resources help overcome some of the obstacles to accessing aid for certain populations, but households with limited education and understanding of public and charitable resources are likely to continue to be at a disadvantage.

Other concerns about the application process involve eligibility definitions and the potential for people to be excluded from programs based on characteristics or behaviors that are associated with other characteristics. FEMA, for example, requires proof of citizenship or official residency, personal identification, occupancy or ownership of a home, and insurance.

Procuring these formal records is a challenge for most households that have experienced a recent disaster. For others, collecting these documents is nearly impossible.

Multigenerational family homeowners without active mortgages or who live in rural communities where a formal title is not readily documented are at a disadvantage. These households that should otherwise be eligible for assistance are denied—a problem reported in Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria recovery and recounted by many households after Hurricane Harvey in the offices of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

Because insurance and federal aid programs are meant to complement rather than duplicate each other, proof of other assistance is required—and lack of disclosure can result in denial of aid. In Texas, 3.6 percent of homeowners and 15.7 percent of renter households that applied were denied for this reason.

What other challenges might disaster victims face during the aid application process?

Stories of confused applicants and confusing application processes abound from the 2017 disaster season. Those with complicated living situations or shared addresses, like the separated parents living in the same home, may find their application denied or marked for “duplicate review.”

Other potential applicants may choose not to seek public aid because of their sensitivity to privacy and security. FEMA applicants must provide Social Security numbers as proof of US citizenship or residency, annual household incomes, insurance policy information, and bank account information—all of which could lead to sensitivity or confusion on the applicant’s part even if they have that information.

FEMA’s databases are filled with self-reporting errors from applicants as well as human errors in analyses and tabulations, which could result in unreliable data, such as homes reporting ZIP codes in the wrong counties. Even clear instructions can result in unintentional user errors that could lead to aid denial.

Another troubling aspect of the recovery assistance process is that information about other programs that may provide more financially sound resources for a household is not always provided. Applicants usually seek the most immediate aid they can find and are not always in the right frame of mind to select from alternatives.

This selection problem is compounded by the fact that some recovery assistance—like HUD-funded state and local disaster recovery programs—might not exist at the time an applicant is seeking aid from other sources. When available, an applicant may be denied because they were already approved for another aid program, such as an SBA loan.

How to improve the aid application process and ensure all victims receive the help they need

At this critical stage of disaster recovery, most public programs design their application processes to ensure that only eligible applicants enroll, to reduce any duplication of benefits, and to provide incentives to private insurance and other personal recovery resources, rather than to expand assistance access. These are all reasonable operational goals, but they must be balanced with a humane and thoughtful treatment of people who have just experienced a life-changing crisis.

If errors in aid requests begin in the first days after a disaster, damage losses will not be factored into the counts made later by federal, state, and local governments. This means their neighborhoods will not receive adequate assistance, perpetuating a cycle of inequity that leaves homes and neighborhoods in ruins.

Tactics to improve the application process include the following steps:

  • Expand plans to engage hard-to-reach, hard-to-serve populations and implement pre-disaster databases and pre-populated application information to reduce the burdens on these disaster survivors.
  • Establish variations for meeting requirements, such as alternative proof of title, that are accepted by practitioners before disasters.
  • Ensure consistency of the application instructions and guidance given by all disaster-related personnel (including both public- and civil-sector staff).
  • Ensure that all possible aid programs are clearly established and communicated to potential applicants as early as possible so that applicants can make the best decisions about their recovery needs.

Many Americans rely on friends, family, charities, and religious institutions after a disaster with the expectation that assistance will come in the long term. Victims should be able to easily navigate the process of applying for and receiving that assistance when they need it. Disasters are inevitable, and our disaster safety net should be solid.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Infrastructure Federal urban policies
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center