Recent Disasters Reveal Racial Discrimination in FEMA Aid Process

With Hurricane Florence’s floodwaters receding and people returning home to deal with the damage left behind, the disaster recovery process is getting underway in the Carolinas.

Residents who suffered losses as a result of the storm are now able to register for assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Homeland Security division that coordinates responses to disasters that overwhelm local and state authorities. But if the FEMA response to recent disasters is any indication, storm victims could face barriers in securing federal aid — especially if they’re not white.

Consider what happened in Texas after Hurricane Harvey hit the Gulf Coast last August. A survey of more than 1,600 Texans in 24 counties conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation from Oct. 17 to Nov. 20 documented how the storm itself had disparate impacts on various demographic groups, with black and Hispanic residents and those with lower incomes more likely to be affected by property damage or income loss than white and wealthier residents, and with the racial disparities persisting even after controlling for income.

The inequality in who the disaster affected was then amplified in the recovery process, with black and Hispanic respondents more likely than their white counterparts to report being unable to access needed aid of any kind. Only 52 percent of the survey’s white respondents impacted by Harvey said they were able to get the help they needed; that number dropped to 46 percent for Hispanic and 32 percent for black respondents.

Among those who applied for post-Harvey disaster assistance from FEMA or the Small Business Administration (which provides low-interest loans for businesses, nonprofits, homeowners, and renters), those who reported incomes at least four times the federal poverty level were more likely to say their application was approved, at 45 percent. And while only 34 percent of all white residents who sought…

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