How the Federal Emergency Management Agency has worked to provide more equitable disaster relief
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How the Federal Emergency Management Agency has worked to provide more equitable disaster relief

August 16, 2022
Jenna Boccher

Recent years have shown extraordinary evidence of extreme weather. From the Yellowstone flood to heightened heat waves, there is a troubling trend of recent disaster events hitting harder and more frequently; the Federal Emergency Management Agency received nearly 560,000 registrations for its Individual Assistance programs, which provide financial aid and other services to disaster survivors.

Recently, the Partnership for Public Service released an in-depth analysis of customers’ experiences with these programs, focusing on the challenges FEMA has tried to overcome to improve access and design more equitable services for those who need them most.

Barriers to access

The application process for FEMA support is time-intensive, which can be difficult for those in need because of the stressors that people experience during and after a natural disaster.

However, applying for relief can be difficult due to layers of bureaucracy and red tape. In addition, communication from FEMA staff directly to the customer is at times muddled, leading to confusion about eligibility requirements, why applicants are denied aid and what they should do next.

FEMA has also struggled to coordinate its communication and activities across federal agencies and other organizations. Customers seeking aid often get lost within the center of a complex web of procedures and multiple points of contact.

Finally, FEMA has not always quickly and efficiently connected customers with property inspectors, a key step in applying for aid coverage. In some cases, inspections occurred up to forty days after a disaster occurred.

Improvements made by FEMA

Our analysis noted that FEMA took decisive action to remedy these customer concerns in 2021.

In response to poor customer communication, the agency retrained field staff to better explain evidence that is required for receiving financial aid and direct services. Additionally, FEMA is now rewriting its denial letters to more accurately explain the agency’s reasoning and outline what disaster survivors should do next.

FEMA, in conjunction with several federal agencies, also formulated a customer journey map that showed in detail what customers must do to access disaster relief. The agency hopes that future collaboration with governmental agencies will streamline customer interactions with FEMA staff.

In addition, the agency has used remote property inspections to decrease wait times to as soon as 24 hours after a disaster event. FEMA’s overall integration of technology, innovation and communication into its operations resulted in a 3-point increase in its customer experience score from 2019.

Equity for disaster relief in action

Natural disasters have been shown to impact underserved communities at a much higher rate due to a variety of factors, including disaster-prone area housing, substandard housing and a lack of property ownership and insurance. However, recent reporting suggests that FEMA policy has at times reinforced and exacerbated these disparities.

Recently, FEMA has worked to remedy this problem. For example, the agency has adjusted its policy to allow for more flexibility in the ownership and occupancy documentation used for disaster assistance applications, and approved inspections for individuals with pending identity and ownership verification.

FEMA is also working to reduce disparities through its Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, which ensures that people with disabilities are included in FEMA processes by providing resources, training and technical assistance. For example, FEMA has expanded its financial aid program to include costs for special components, such as ramps or grab bars.

These positive changes address the different barriers customers face to access FEMA disaster relief services. In order to provide equal aid, the agency will need to continue to meet the people where they are and ensure it serves its diverse customer base equitably.

To learn more about the customer experience at FEMA and other agencies, check out our full “Government for the People” report.

Jenna Boccher is a former intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.

1 Comment

  • Dr. Gary

    Thank you for sharing some of FEMA’s great strides for more equitable disaster relief! Its always nice to see positive coverage in the press and social media.

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