After Hurricane Sandy, Congress directed FEMA to update criteria, but work remains unfinished
Washington citizens denied Individual Assistance disaster aid past two years
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Reps. Jim McDermott, Adam Smith, Rick Larsen, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dave Reichert, Jaime Herrera Beutler, Derek Kilmer, Suzan DelBene, Denny Heck, and Dan Newhouse, sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, expressing concern over the slow pace of FEMA’s progress to update its criteria for Individual Assistance. After Hurricane Sandy, Congress passed legislation directing FEMA to review, update, and revise its process for how it determines whether assistance to individuals and households is approved; however, this process remains unfinished. For the past two years, FEMA has denied citizens in communities devastated by wildfires from receiving this particular type of disaster assistance. While updated criteria will not affect past events, the lawmakers are concerned that with wildfires only continuing to increase in severity, this unfinished business will affect Washington citizens’ ability to receive aid in the event of future disasters.
In their letter to Administrator Fugate, the lawmakers wrote: “Despite cumulatively burning close to 1.4 million acres and destroying over 400 homes, FEMA denied Individual Assistance for both disasters. As a result, entire communities – many of them already dealing with stubbornly high unemployment rates and low median incomes– have been left to grapple with additional job losses and severe housing shortages without critical forms of Federal assistance… Like many of our constituents, we are frustrated by the glacial pace of this process, especially given the serious implications it has for disaster victims.”
Entire text of the letter is below:
November 5, 2015
Administrator W. Craig Fugate
Federal Emergency Management Agency
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
500 C Street SW
Washington, DC 20472
Dear Administrator Fugate,
We write concerning the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) ongoing Individual Assistance (IA) rulemaking process and its major implications for our home state of Washington. While we understand the rulemaking process must be thorough, we are concerned progress is moving far too slowly at a time when communities in our state are suffering the very real consequences of wildfires.
As you are aware, the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 (SRIA) directed FEMA, within a year of enactment, to “review, update, and revise through rulemaking the factors considered under section 206.48 of title 44, Code of Federal Regulations” to “provide more objective criteria for evaluating the need for assistance to individuals.” While FEMA has begun this process in compliance with SRIA, the Agency has failed to detail its current status beyond stating that a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is anticipated “no earlier than 2014.” Given that they were last modified in 1999, FEMA’s IA criteria are long-overdue for an update and we are concerned that further delay may have real and negative implications for individuals recovering from declared disasters.
Over the last two years, Washington has witnessed historic wildfire seasons, each receiving Major Disaster Declarations. Despite cumulatively burning close to 1.4 million acres and destroying over 400 homes, FEMA denied Individual Assistance for both disasters. As a result, entire communities – many of them already dealing with stubbornly high unemployment rates and low median incomes– have been left to grapple with additional job losses and severe housing shortages without critical forms of Federal assistance. What’s more, the wildfire threat only appears to be getting worse, as the scope and severity of wildfires have grown dramatically in recent years. In the 15 years preceding FEMA’s 1999 update of its IA rules, wildfires burned an average of 42 acres per fire; in the 15 years since, that figure has nearly doubled to an average of 82 acres per fire. FEMA cannot and should not allow this process to drag out longer than absolutely necessary, as it is critical that the Agency is able to incorporate these new realities into its existing criteria and help communities in need.
Like many of our constituents, we are frustrated by the glacial pace of this process, especially given the serious implications it has for disaster victims. This is why we urge you to expedite this rulemaking process and request that you clarify as to when FEMA will publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and when FEMA will adopt a Final Rule. As always, thank you for your efforts on behalf of the country and Washington state and we look forward to your response on this critical matter.
Sen. Patty Murray
Sen. Maria Cantwell
Rep. Jim McDermott
Rep. Adam Smith
Rep. Rick Larsen
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers
Rep. Dave Reichert
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler
Rep. Derek Kilmer
Rep. Suzan DelBene
Rep. Denny Heck
Rep. Dan Newhouse