‘They don’t offer anything’: Disaster survivors left behind when FEMA, states don’t help

 ‘They don’t offer anything’: Disaster survivors left behind when FEMA, states don’t help

After natural disasters, FEMA often rejects aid to vulnerable communities where survivors have few other paths to recovery, an NBC News analysis found.

The Arizaga family lived in a two-bedroom bungalow in Fultondale, Ala., for four years before a 2021 tornado destroyed it. 

March 16, 2022, 3:31 PM +07

FULTONDALE, Ala. — As a tornado with winds of up to 150 mph tore through this small Alabama city last year, 14-year-old Elliott Arizaga-Hernandez dashed upstairs to grab his lantern, a birthday gift, in case the lights went out. He sprinted back down to the basement and joined his parents and his four brothers, huddling together as the windows upstairs shattered. 

Elliott’s older brother Christopher later recalled that they heard a roar like a train engine. “Get down!” Christopher screamed. A brick wall in the basement collapsed. Their mother, Saraid Hernandez, grabbed Elliott moments before the ceiling caved in. 

“Mommy,” Elliott cried as a beam fell, pinning Saraid’s arm with Elliott below it.

She knew then that she was badly hurt, she later told Christopher. But she was more worried about Elliott, her second-youngest son.

“Pray,” she told him in Spanish. “Don’t worry, just pray.”

The tornado that cut a 10-mile path through Jefferson County, Alabama, on Jan. 25, 2021, destroyed 86 homes and severely damaged 45 more, devastating Fultondale, a suburb north of Birmingham with a population of nearly 10,000. The winds were strong enough to flip storage containers and a mobile home.

“Our town got demolished,” Mayor Larry Holcomb said afterward. “I mean, completely destroyed.”  

As the magnitude of the losses became clear, Holcomb and local emergency management officials pleaded for help from the federal government — up to the White House. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated that the cost to support those without insurance in finding temporary shelter and beginning to rebuild their homes would top $1.8 million. 

But the federal government denied Jefferson County’s request for help, saying the tornado did not cause enough damage to require FEMA’s help. Now, more than a year later, leveled houses are surrounded by debris. After FEMA’s denial, Holcomb pinned his hopes on the state, but was frustrated to learn that there is no publicly funded aid available in Alabama for those who cannot afford to rebuild.

“They don’t offer anything,” he said.

FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year helping uninsured residents recover after severe storms. If the White House approves a state’s request for aid — generally based on a recommendation from FEMA — eligible families can receive up to $75,800 for expenses including home repairs, temporary hotel stays, hospital bills and funeral costs. For the recipients, these funds can mean the difference between rebuilding a longtime home and becoming homeless. 

But this critical aid is out of reach for many of the nation’s disaster survivors, including some of the most financially vulnerable, an NBC News analysis found. 

From fall 2018 to fall 2021, the federal government turned down nearly 40 percent of states’ requests for FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program, totaling 33 denials, according to an examination of agency records. The rejections followed disasters including wildfires, flash floods, tornadoes and mudslides. FEMA estimated that it would have cost $107.5 million to fulfill these denied requests — or less than half of what the agency approved to support New Jersey residents after Hurricane Ida.

Often, these were disasters with highly concentrated damage — dozens of homes destroyed in a handful of counties, rather than widespread destruction across a state. FEMA’s program generally prioritizes aid for major catastrophes and those in densely populated areas; the agency often considers these other disasters too small to require federal assistance, saying that state and local governments should be able to help instead. 

However, the NBC News analysis found that many of FEMA’s rejections occurred in communities where economic hardships left disaster survivors with few other paths to recovery: Nearly all of the communities that were denied federal aid had poverty rates higher than the national average, while in two-thirds of these communities, less than half of the affected residents had insurance. 

Alabama, one of the poorest states, was turned down the most often in this three-year period, after requesting aid for a 2018 hurricane, winter storms in 2019, and the 2021 tornado in which the Arizaga family’s home was destroyed. 

Alabama is also one of at least 39 states that lack a publicly funded state aid program designed to help disaster survivors rebuild their homes, according to a 2020 survey by the National Emergency Management Association. Without federal or state assistance, struggling residents in these states are often left to rely on loans or charity —  an imperfect safety net, according to elected officials, emergency managers, community advocates and disaster recovery experts.

While FEMA may not be able to help every community that requests aid — and while states bear some responsibility for mitigating the impact of disasters — the federal government should still step up to help vulnerable people in need, said Carlos Martín, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who studies the financial fallout of disasters. 

“There is a role for the federal government to come in and help [when] the state hasn’t,” he said. 

Martín believes that FEMA should have a separate approval process for aid to underresourced communities, to ensure that they are prioritized. 

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has been fighting to change this process for a decade, ever since FEMA denied aid to Illinois after a 2012 tornado in Harrisburg destroyed or damaged more than 200 homes and left eight people dead. After that, he said, he learned not to promise his constituents that he would bring home disaster relief from Washington. 

“I stopped saying those things because I didn’t want to create false hope,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s so rare that there’s assistance coming back from Washington.”

FEMA considers a range of factors in deciding which disasters deserve aid under its Individual Assistance Program, primarily focusing on the state’s economy and the share of damaged or destroyed homes that were uninsured. (FEMA also has a separate Public Assistance Program, which helps local governments rebuild infrastructure after disasters and has a more transparent threshold for which communities receive aid, based on the amount of damage per capita.) 

Durbin has pushed for legislation that would require FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program to place a clearer emphasis on local economic circumstances, including by considering the community’s median income. But his bill hasn’t advanced. 

In response to NBC News’ analysis, FEMA released a statement saying that it has been working to make its Individual Assistance Program more equitable and to “meet people where they are to identify and remove barriers to our programs.” 

“We’re also leaving no stone unturned when it comes to helping socially vulnerable communities and survivors,” the statement continued, “and efforts that require statutory or regulatory changes are also on the table. The bottom line is, we’re looking at this from all angles and will do all we can to support vulnerable communities and survivors through our individual assistance program.” 

FEMA declined to provide details about any proposed policy changes.




















































Academics have amassed a growing body of research showing racial and economic disparities in FEMA’s disaster relief programs. 

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued an executive order instructing all agencies to assess whether — and to what extent — their programs “perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups.” 

The White House, which has final signoff on disaster declarations and aid based on a recommendation from FEMA, declined to comment beyond FEMA’s statement. Biden nominated a new FEMA administrator, who was confirmed last April, but the Individual Assistance Program’s criteria have not changed.

The issue is growing more urgent as climate change fuels stronger storms, exacting an uneven toll because of inequities in where and how homes are built. That makes it even more important to address how the government helps those who lose everything, experts and advocates say.

“If we continue to get these kinds of disparities in terms of declarations and the flow of funding, we’ll find more and more communities of color and poor communities further marginalized, underprotected,” said Robert Bullard, director of an environmental justice resource center at Texas Southern University. “And we’ll be placing them at greater risk.”

The house on Oak Street

For four years before the tornado hit Fultondale, the Arizaga family had lived in the little white house on Oak Street. The two-bedroom bungalow was a tight fit for the family of seven, but it sat atop a hill, giving Saraid a view from the kitchen window of the youngest boys as they walked home from the bus stop. 

After Oscar Arizaga Sr. was in a serious car accident in 2019, the family remodeled the bathroom to include a walk-in shower. They were renting the home, but had signed a contract that they hoped would enable them to buy it someday.

The tornado destroyed the house within seconds, splintering beams supporting the floor above the basement, the family members later recalled. After the winds died down, Christopher, 20, called 911. Then he helped Brandon, 16, and his youngest brother, Eddie, 7, climb over the collapsed brick wall in the basement. But Elliott remained trapped inside, along with his parents and his oldest brother, Oscar Jr.

Christopher tried to pull them to safety, but there was debris everywhere. He heard his mother singing from below: “Dios, grande es tu amor…” “God, great is your love.”

Oscar Jr., 23, who was pinned down by plywood in the dark basement, called out to Elliott to see if he was OK. 

“He’s OK,” Saraid told him. “Stop calling his name.” 

Oscar Jr. heard his father groaning from beneath a beam. Oscar Sr., 45, had spent much of the previous year unable to work, recovering from the car accident. He had just returned to his job building coils for large industrial motors several weeks earlier. His son worried: What if he has been injured again?

Emergency responders arrived and started freeing Oscar Jr. Before they helped him outside, his mother told him she didn’t know if she would survive. She told him to be strong for his younger siblings. Then she shared: “Your brother didn’t make it.”

In the days after Elliott’s death, the Arizaga family confronted grief and a new reality. Like dozens of other families in Fultondale, their home was a complete loss. 

More than one-third of the Jefferson County residents whose homes were damaged had no insurance, according to federal estimates, which listed the poverty rate at 16 percent As they waited to see if the federal government would send aid, many residents turned to nearby churches and their neighbors and relatives for help. City officials collected donations to pay for hotel rooms, but with debris cleanup already cutting into the city’s reserve funds, there was little more local authorities could do.

The Arizaga family had no renters’ insurance and still had outstanding medical bills from Oscar Sr.’s car accident. Their cars were destroyed in the storm, smashed by falling tree branches. 

Saraid was released from the hospital quickly, but Oscar Sr. needed surgery for his broken arm and was hospitalized for days.  

As word of Elliott’s death spread, a fellow congregant offered the family a room in her two-bedroom home so they wouldn’t be homeless. An anonymous donor paid for Elliott’s funeral. 

On Feb. 9, 2021, the family buried Elliott after a sermon that brought Christopher some solace, particularly the part in which the pastor said they’d see Elliott again, in heaven.  

Holcomb, the mayor, came to pay his respects and left the family a business card, saying to call if they needed anything.

“They literally lost everything they had, including their child,” he said recently. “I can’t imagine the stress, or the pain that they went through.”

Oscar Jr. didn’t believe her. She’s not thinking straight, he thought. 

After rescue workers helped him outside, he saw that the street looked like “the apocalypse,” he said, with neighbors screaming for help and sirens blaring. Emergency responders freed his parents and brought them to waiting ambulances.

But when the emergency crew reached Elliott, they found that he had been crushed by a falling floor joist and an air conditioning unit after the home’s first floor collapsed. They wrapped his body in a sheet and carried him outside to await the coroner. 

Oscar Jr. knelt on the road and cried. “In the Arizaga family, there are five brothers, not four,” he yelled. “There are supposed to be five.”

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