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In the wake of record-breaking flooding across eastern Kentucky, many have questions about exactly how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) determines how much money to assist claimants with.

Justin Hicks with the Ohio Valley Resource has researched the inner-workings of FEMA and interviewed Bryan Miller, a FEMA Individual Assistance Liaison. Here’s what we learned that may be helpful to others trying to understand the process. 

FEMA will not “make you whole”

Even those who do get assistance from FEMA may be disappointed with the amount they are awarded. But Bryan Miller with FEMA says that’s because it’s of a common misconception that the aid is supposed to return things to normal, when it simply isn’t designed that way.

“FEMA’s program is one that just provides a little bit of money to get you jump started on your road to recovery,” he said. “It does not make you whole. It’s not an insurance company. Our primary goal is that you, as a person, have a place that is safe, sanitary and functional. Our investment is in you. It’s not really in your home.”

Miller said FEMA’s intention is simply to get people basic living conditions: a safe place to sleep, use the bathroom, and eat.

“To give you an example, if an individual lives in a house that has four bedrooms, that individual doesn’t need all of those bedrooms,” Miller said. “Our concept is that you have one bedroom if you’re one person…a bathroom, a kitchen, and then some peripheral personal items if they were destroyed or damaged.”

He also said don’t expect the amount awarded to match the price of higher-quality items.

“The program doesn’t give you a top-dollar bedroom suite,” Miller said. “It gives you [something] like a twin bed or a full bed and the funds for a nightstand and a lamp or a dresser.”

Understanding the Individual Assistance declaration

Individual Assistance is a catch-all term for most of FEMA’s direct aid to people in places hit by disasters. It includes things like crisis counseling and disaster-related unemployment assistance. 12 counties in Kentucky are currently approved for Individual Assistance – and underneath that umbrella lies the Individuals and Households Program, the program most people are filling out applications for.

People have 60 days from the Presidential declaration of the disaster. That happened on July 29 which means, unless it’s extended, FEMA applications in eastern Kentucky can be submitted until September 28.

Although some counties were approved for Individual Assistance on different days, the FEMA program policy guide says in cases like this “the registration deadline is still 60 days after the date of declaration, not 60 days from the day the county or parish was designated for IA, unless extended.”

The Individuals and Households Program (What most people are applying for)

The Individuals and Households Program contains major two types of aid: Housing Assistance and Other Needs Assistance. Currently, claimants can receive a maximum of $37,900 in aid for Housing Assistance. Separately, there’s another maximum of $37,900 in aid for Other Needs Assistance. Survivors can also receive monetary aid for temporary housing or lodging and disability-compliant home repairs, which do not count towards those maximums.

“ADA-type items that have to be replaced [such as] ramps, hand bars, things along that nature no longer go against your cap,” Miller said. 

Justin Hicks | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Individuals and Households Program has some components that have award limits and others that do not.

According to Governor Andy Beshear, FEMA representatives can now tell people if they are eligible or ineligible for the Individuals and Households Program on the spot at disaster recovery centers. (This map can give you all the places and times FEMA currently has people stationed.)

When applying, people should be prepared to bring documents that verify their citizenship, identity, proof of home ownership or lease agreement if renting, private insurance policies and any other documents you think might help.  

FEMA Housing Assistance aid

Usually if you’re found eligible for housing assistance, a FEMA inspector is assigned to visit the house. They’ll try to call the homeowner to schedule a visit.

Miller said inspectors are trained to go room-by-room and assign each room with one of four damage levels ranging from “affected” to “destroyed.” There are different criteria for “manufactured” homes and “conventionally” built homes according to an inspection guidance manual. He said assessing damage in category levels was developed during the pandemic when inspectors couldn’t safely visit homes and they found it made decisions quicker. 

“Instead of processing, you know, [the disaster destroyed] this many feet of wood, this many feet of sheetrock…we’ve come up with that, and it works pretty well,” he said.

Inspectors will find out which rooms are occupied and prioritize fixing the bare minimum amount of occupied bedrooms and common areas with the least amount of damage.

Justin Hicks | Ohio Valley ReSource

Damage level chart in FEMA’s “Preliminary Damage Assessment” guidance document.

Finally, the inspection information is matched with application information and run through a computer program. FEMA uses data from various sources, like third-party software company Gordian and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to estimate the cost of repair work and housing in particular locations.

“Based upon that information it’s sent back to our processing center, and it goes through the computer programs – what we call ‘Business Rules,’” Miller said. “Then based upon the inspector information, it’s automated to make awards and make some type of determination.”

What if it takes a long time to get that decision back?

Miller said sometimes, matching up information with government databases can be tricky. Everything from official addresses to exact name spellings have to match. He said, for instance, someone who goes by “Terry” but is legally named “Terrance” might see a delay because it requires manual assistance.

“It’s not just what we enter, it’s what is in the official database,” he said. “When you got a social security card, how did [it spell] your name? Was it Terry? Was it Terrance? Was it Terry with a Y or Terry with an I?” [It sounds] so simple…but because this has to be computer verified, a lot of that stuff has to be very precise.”

FEMA “Other Needs Assistance”

Based on the information put in the application, many people could get Other Needs Assistance to help with funerals, medical bills, child care, moving and storage, or cleaning and removing debris from a house.

But based on their financial situation, some people with incomes well above federal poverty guidelines may get referred to take out a loan from the Small Business Administration. (This has nothing to do with whether the person is a business owner – the SBA is just the agency who administers this program.)

According to the SBA, loans to replace or repair a home can go up to $200,000 and up to $40,000 to repair or replace furniture, vehicles or other personal property. The SBA says it is “the primary source of federal money for long-term disaster recovery.”

Justin Hicks | Ohio Valley ReSource

A flowchart describing how FEMA aid and the SBA loan work together.

If someone is ineligible for a loan because they are low-income, or the government determines they couldn’t reasonably pay back the debt they would incur, they can get assistance to help with lost personal property, vehicles, or access a group flood insurance policy.  

How do those Small Business Administration (SBA) loans work?

When applying for aid, some people may get referred to apply for a Small Business Administration loan. That referral is based on if the household makes more than the minimum eligibility amount.

According to congressional researchers: “the SBA establishes minimum income levels by multiplying the poverty level for a family of one by a factor of 1.5, and multiplying the poverty level for families of greater than one by a factor of 1.25. The income test formula is not specifically authorized in statute and is not published in SBA regulations.”

Based on that formula and the 2022 federal poverty guidelines, here’s what that “income test” for eligibility might look like today.

Household Size

Income

Multiplier

Minimum Amount to be referred for SBA loan

1

$13,590

1.5

$20,385

2

$18,310

1.25

$22,887.50

3

$23,030

1.25

$28,787.50

4

$27,750

1.25

$34,687.50

5

$32,470

1.25

$40,587.50

The Small Business Administration also publishes fact sheets and guidance about loans specific to each disaster. Here’s the schedule for loan interest rates related to the flooding in eastern Kentucky.

Justin Hicks | Ohio Valley ReSource

A selection from a Small Business Administration fact sheet about disaster relief loans in eastern Kentucky.

Justin is the Data Reporter for OVR and Louisville Public Media