The Speights' mobile home in DeQuincy, La., is at the end of an unpaved road in a stand of tall longleaf pines. Donnie and Stephen Speight bought the land and the house 11 years ago after Stephen retired from his job as a pipe fitter at a local petrochemical plant.
The area around their home is flat and marshy. Creeks wend their way toward the Gulf of Mexico. Egrets linger in the tall grass. The Speights liked how secluded and quiet it was.
Stephen's nickname at work was "Termite" because he was agile enough to crawl into pipes when he was younger. But his health was declining. He was a Vietnam veteran who had been exposed to Agent Orange during the war and had rapidly advancing diabetes and mobility problems.
It took everything Donnie had to care for her husband. "I got arthritis like crazy. It's in my hands, my arms, my neck, my hips, my knees," Donnie says. "I don't know how I was doing it."
That was before Hurricane Laura hit in August. The Category 4 hurricane knocked out power, destroyed the air conditioning unit and sent a tree through the bedroom ceiling. Donnie couldn't use the lift to get Stephen in and out of bed because it needed electricity. The nebulizer that helped him breathe also required power. The house was dangerously hot. The hole was right next to the hospital bed where Stephen slept, and water leaked into the bedroom every time it rained. It rains a lot in southern Louisiana.
The Speights were living on a fixed income, and they didn't have home insurance. They didn't have the money to fix the damage. So, like most disaster survivors, they turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help.
But the Speights didn't get the help they needed, and their experience echoes those of low-income disaster survivors across the country. FEMA's own analyses show that low-income survivors are less likely than more affluent people to get crucial federal emergency assistance, according to internal documents NPR obtained through a public records request.
FEMA analyzed 4.8 million aid registrations submitted by disaster survivors between 2014 and 2018 and compared applicants' income. The findings include:
FEMA's own assessment shows it often fails to help those most in need. The agency did not respond to follow-up questions about its analyses, including whether it has completed additional income-based analyses since 2019.
Disaster experts and local officials have warned for decades that FEMA's approach to disaster assistance is fundamentally unfair.
"It validates everything we've been saying for years now," says Chauncia Willis, the former emergency manager for Tampa, Fla., and co-founder of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, a nonprofit organization that advocates for equity in disaster response. "We know there are structural inequities within the system of how FEMA does business — their programs, their policies, their funding."
For years, FEMA defended its programs. The agency initially withheld its internal analyses from NPR and academic researchers. FEMA now acknowledges it may not be serving everyone equally after disasters, although it has not said how it plans to address the disparities beyond studying them more.
"We do understand our obligation to support disaster survivors in an equitable way; that is a responsibility that we have here at FEMA. And, candidly, we have work to do there," says Keith Turi, FEMA's assistant administrator for recovery. "Our programs have been built on providing equal treatment to survivors, but that's not necessarily equal outcome."
The agency is up against the clock. Climate-fueled disasters are accelerating, which means more and more Americans are relying on federal disaster assistance that is inequitable. Without critical FEMA help right after a hurricane hits, the damage can reverberate through people's lives for years and decimate once-sturdy communities.
When a hurricane damages your home, a clock starts ticking. Every day without stable shelter makes it more likely that the blow dealt by the storm will unleash a cascade of problems. Children miss school, adults are unable to work, older adults stop taking lifesaving medication. Mold and heat exposure threaten to make everyone sick.
FEMA can help stave off that disaster after the disaster. If a hurricane, flood or wildfire upends your life, the agency can give money to repair the damage, replace some of the things you lost and pay for a temporary place to live. Many people hope and expect the government will be the safety net at one of the worst times of their lives.
Ten months after Hurricane Laura, Donnie Speight is trying to hold together the pieces of her life. The fight began as soon as the storm was over, when Speight applied for help from FEMA and received $1,649: $1,200 to repair the hole in her roof and $449 for a generator.
That wasn't enough to pay for stable shelter. The cost of materials and equipment often spike after disasters, and Speight says the least expensive generator she could find at the time was $900, which used up much of the couple's emergency savings. The Speights had no choice: Stephen needed power for his medical devices.
The $1,200 for the roof was about half what a contractor would charge to do the repair, and the couple didn't have the money to make up the difference. FEMA does not take savings or income into account when it decides how much housing assistance to award a disaster survivor.
FEMA might as well have awarded nothing for the roof repair, Donnie Speight says, for all the good it did. The Speights lived with the hole in the bedroom ceiling all winter — through countless rainstorms, through February's deep freeze.
In March, Stephen Speight died of pulmonary failure. Donnie doesn't blame his death on the hurricane's aftermath. She says he'd been sick for a long time. But she says that the final months of their 39-year marriage were significantly harder because of the unrepaired damage to their house.
"I went through some hard times there with Steve," she says, sitting in her kitchen on a rainy May morning, the paper program from his funeral on the table in front of her and water pooling on the floor. Without her husband's veterans' benefits and Social Security, Speight's financial situation is even more precarious. She's currently fighting debt collectors who threaten to take her land, and private volunteer groups have been helping her try to repair or replace her house.
"We've been here for 11 years," she says. "I started saying 'We ain't left yet.' " She sighs. "I haven't left yet."
Earlier this month, Speight says she unexpectedly received an additional $10,000 in housing assistance from FEMA. She's looking for a used mobile home that she can afford, to replace the damaged one. FEMA did not respond to questions about the Speights' case, including about whether NPR's queries to the agency about the situation had anything to do with FEMA's decision to award Donnie Speight additional funds nearly a year after the hurricane.
Speight's plight is an example of how inadequate FEMA assistance can push low-income families toward displacement. "You know, I've heard the term climate refugees," says Craig Fugate, who led FEMA between 2009 and 2017. "What we're seeing is people being displaced when their homes are damaged and they can't repair them.
"I call it exporting the poor," Fugate says. "Because no matter what you say you're doing, the end result is that the poor are being displaced. I've watched it happen after hurricanes. It's not fair, and I think that's why we have to rethink [FEMA] programs."
In November, official allegations of bias arrived on FEMA's doorstep. The agency's National Advisory Council, a federal panel established after Hurricane Katrina, published a report that slammed FEMA for persistent income-based aid disparities and for not helping those in greatest need. Some FEMA assistance "provide[s] an additional boost to wealthy homeowners and others with less need, while lower-income individuals and others sink further into poverty after disasters," the authors write.
FEMA also fails to serve people from marginalized racial groups, the report warns. "Through the entire disaster cycle communities that have been underserved stay underserved and thereby suffer needlessly and unjustly," the authors write. FEMA's failures are particularly worrisome because the agency leads the federal government's response to climate change impacts, they say.
The disparities play out in full view in Lake Charles, La. The area was hit by two hurricanes last year as abnormally hot water fueled a record number of storms in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. Craig Marks, a newly elected City Council member and lifelong resident of Lake Charles, says FEMA failed the city's most vulnerable, including older adults, families with young children, veterans and poor people.
Marks is especially concerned about the long-term effects on historically Black neighborhoods. Many families have passed down homes for generations, and they no longer carry homeowners insurance because they don't have mortgages that require it. Many residents live on low or fixed incomes, making insurance a luxury. Marks says helping such families is "supposed to be the job of FEMA," but that many uninsured homeowners in Lake Charles have received little or no help from the agency.
"FEMA was supposed to be the 'Plan B,' " Marks says. "It failed."
Without adequate FEMA assistance for repairs, many people have no choice but to abandon their houses. Marks has watched some of his own neighbors move away. "The flight is hurting us," he says. U.S. Postal Service data shows that Lake Charles had the largest outward migration of any city in the United States last year, with about 7% of residents leaving.
Marks says the population decline is most apparent in less affluent parts of town. Meanwhile, he says residents of more affluent areas seem to be having more luck getting FEMA assistance. "It appears that the rich are getting more," Marks says. "I don't know why it happens like that, but I am learning that is just the way the ball bounces."
Indeed, FEMA's own analyses show that low-income homeowners receive less repair assistance. But FEMA has never systematically tracked the race of aid applicants, which means the agency has never had concrete demographic data about who is receiving help. That will change "in the near future," says Turi, the assistant administrator for recovery, although he did not specify when.
FEMA did not respond to follow-up questions about its plans to track the race of aid applicants or its response to the disasters in Lake Charles.
Even without FEMA data about race, evidence points to systemic racism within federal disaster response, according to Willis of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. A growing body of academic research uses U.S. census and other publicly available data to document racial disparities in who benefits from FEMA assistance.
For example, a 2019 study found that survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Houston were less likely to receive FEMA grants if they lived in neighborhoods with more racial minorities compared with neighborhoods with more white residents and more financial resources. That led to a nearly 40% increase in the bankruptcy rate in neighborhoods where many people of color live.
"This has been happening since the beginning of America's existence," Willis says. "America has been treating people of color and poor people terribly in disasters. They are not a priority."
Willis points out that, as recently as the early 20th century, official death counts after disasters often did not include Black people. More recently, Black New Orleanians were disproportionately displaced after Hurricane Katrina. Many survivors of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico are still trying to repair homes that were damaged nearly four years ago, and residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota struggled to get federal assistance after a massive storm in 2019.
The once-thriving Black neighborhoods of Port Arthur, Texas, show what happens when a large number of homeowners are unable to repair their houses after climate-driven disasters.
Port Arthur is in a marshy bowl right on the Gulf of Mexico, and global warming has accelerated damage from hurricanes and floods. Four hurricanes have hit the city since 2005. Just this spring, a thunderstorm dropped upward of 17 inches of rain in an afternoon.
But as disasters have increased, the whiter, wealthier areas around the city have stayed stable, while Black neighborhoods have declined. Neighborhoods where schoolteachers and factory workers passed down homes for generations are pockmarked with empty lots and dilapidated homes that people cannot afford to fix.
Retired Port Arthur City Council member John Beard says inadequate federal assistance to low-income people in Black neighborhoods is largely to blame. "It's inequitable by definition and design," Beard says. "There is disparity there that's built into the system."
FEMA did not respond to questions about its response to hurricanes in Port Arthur.
One problem with FEMA's current approach is that it focuses more on property than on people, says Junia Howell, a sociologist at Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research who studies federal disaster aid. Those who can prove they owned things that were destroyed, including homes, are able to get money.
That can exclude people who didn't have formal rental agreements or were living in houses they didn't own when the disaster happened. That's how 62-year-old Timothy Dominique ended up sleeping on the street for months after Hurricane Laura. When the storm hit, he was staying at a house originally owned by his brother, who had passed away. The deed was never formally transferred to Dominique's name, and he didn't have a lease, so he was ineligible for repair and rental assistance. He says he received no money from FEMA. Today, he lives next to his old house in an RV donated by a local volunteer group.
"If you're too poor, you get nothing," Dominique says. "Because you ain't got the proper paperwork. The real poor don't have all that."
Moving away from a property-centered approach to broader disaster assistance would fix some disparities in who gets FEMA aid, Howell says.
"Those who have more wealth and have more income [could] get less of the federal aid because they need it less," she says. "Because if everyone's able to restore [their lives], no matter if it's partially from their own means or the government's means, then we will collectively thrive because we all have what we need."
One way to achieve a new version of fairness — one that's based more on equal outcomes — would be for FEMA to ensure proactively that vulnerable people have stable housing after disasters, rather than relying on survivors to prove eligibility.
For example, FEMA could use government records and census data to pinpoint where vulnerable people live and get them money immediately after a disaster, says Beard, the former Port Arthur City Council member.
FEMA says it is actively looking for feedback from local officials about how to make its disaster response more fair and reviewing its overall approach to disaster aid, including the application process. "We are going to continue to evaluate the program holistically and ensure that we are delivering assistance equitably," says Turi, the FEMA assistant administrator. "We think there's more work to be done here."
FEMA's internal analyses also point to potential implicit bias built into the agency's decisions about who gets money after disasters and how much. FEMA analysts found that the agency was twice as likely to deny assistance to lower-income disaster survivors because of insufficient storm damage to their home.
One of FEMA's internal reports recommends that the agency investigate whether the agency's inspection process may be partly to blame. When someone applies for money, FEMA sends inspectors to verify that the damage was caused by the disaster. But the cause of damage is not always clear. For example, if a roof was due to be replaced before a hurricane ripped off half of it, an inspector could decide that the cause of the damage was not the hurricane but lack of maintenance.
Howell says it's likely that implicit bias is leading to disparities about whose damage is deemed "sufficient." Home inspectors, like anyone, bring all their biases and assumptions to the table when they're on the job. For example, if inspectors are predisposed to seeing a neighborhood as less desirable or less valuable, those impressions are baked into how they judge the cause and cost of disaster damage there.
Racism can play a role. Research suggests that implicit bias leads to lower home appraisals for Black homeowners, even when you control for other factors. And centuries of housing discrimination mean white people are more likely to own homes in general.
Willis of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management says one solution is to diversify FEMA's leadership, so the people making big decisions about how the agency allocates money look more like the general population. FEMA is disproportionately white at its upper levels. As of March, 68% of FEMA supervisors were white, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management.
It is unclear whether this disparity is also present among the agency's home inspectors. FEMA did not respond to questions about the racial demographics of inspectors or about the disproportionate number of white supervisors at the agency.
Willis says the homogeneity of FEMA's leadership makes it all but impossible for the agency to develop systems to distribute assistance equitably. "Diversity produces equity, because diversity is offering different experiences," she says.
For example, in some minority communities, it is common for families to own homes together, as opposed to having one name on the deed. FEMA requires that disaster survivors prove they personally own their home to get help repairing it. That requirement might seem basic to members of white FEMA staff, Willis says, but a more racially diverse group would be more likely to understand that the policy could lead to lopsided outcomes.
In an interview with NPR, FEMA's Turi defended the agency's overall workforce demographics. "Our goal is to have a diverse workforce that is representative of the communities that we serve, and we believe that we do," Turi says. "We have staff that come from communities all across the nation with varying cultural and demographic backgrounds."
But in testimony before a House subcommittee last week, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said there is still work to be done. "The nation deserves to have our programs and services delivered fairly and equitably," she told lawmakers. "Internally this means building a diverse and inclusive workforce which reflects the communities we serve."
FEMA did not respond to follow-up questions about its current workforce demographics or goals for the future.
Another way to achieve fairness could be to change who is eligible for federal disaster assistance altogether, so that funds go to people below a certain income or wealth cutoff. That would make disaster assistance more like other public financial assistance such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or Medicaid.
Fugate, the former FEMA administrator, says he supports that idea.
"Think about the [COVID-19] stimulus package," he says. "The people who needed it got it. So maybe we should means-test [FEMA] Individual Assistance and put more emphasis on those who can't pay their way."
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