The Failure to Respond to Frontline Communities


            Shepley               The Anthropocene Alliance is an interesting and increasingly important amalgamation of what a lot of observers now called frontline groups.  Many of these organizations came together to deal with environmental crises:  flooding, fires, hurricanes, tornados, and more.  We’re working closely with the organization and some of their groups over coming years as they deepen their community organizing skills.  All of which made me read closely a recent piece in the Times examining the failures of FEMA and other organizations to adequately support communities and families dealing with these kinds of disasters.  Of course, experiencing Katrina, Ida, Betsey, and more, it’s not doomscrolling to read these stories, it’s plain and simple preparation for the future we know is coming for us all.

Like so much in America and around the world, these tragedies are compounded for lower income families who are often already one paycheck away from precarity, and then suddenly left with nothing and the struggle to start their lives all over again.  Coming back from the flood several years ago, “according to a 2023 survey of people in Houston, 8 percent of those experiencing homelessness cited a disaster, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as the cause.”

Unfortunately, these “acts of god” are compounded by the inadequacy of authorities to do what is necessary to prepare against them and to the government’s inadequate support for recovery.  Insurance is not the answer either, because increasingly private insurances are deserting entire states facing climate catastrophes like parts of Louisiana and California.  Even when they remain the costs are so immense that even middle-income families are going without coverage and taking their chances in a Hobson’s choice.  And, this is the situation now without a disaster.  When one strikes, “In 2022, the Federal Reserve found that 37 percent of Americans would struggle to afford even a $400 emergency — not enough to cover the cost of an evacuation or a month’s rent, let alone rebuild an entire life.”

When disaster does strike, you might as well call Ghostbusters as FEMA.  “Between 2010 and 2019, for example, amid disasters that devastated communities and destroyed homes, the average amount of FEMA assistance to individuals was $3,522. The maximum award this year is $41,000, which only about 1 percent of applicants receive.”  Now eighteen-years after Katrina, it still enrages me that 50,000 homes of largely African-Americans were denied aid because of problems with their deeds, when inspectors eyes could see the truth, but the paperwork was lying.

Are there solutions?  Yes, too many, as the piece summarizes:

While Congress bears much of the responsibility for recovery reform, FEMA could minimize the administrative burden placed on survivors. Small changes like extending application deadlines — which can range from a couple of weeks to over a year for a major disaster — until after survivors have had time to settle with their insurance companies would help more of them get access to FEMA funding.

FEMA is only one piece of the recovery system. State and local governments need to do more to plan for recovery in advance and create state-level recovery programs. Many jurisdictions have only a part-time emergency manager, and even well-staffed agencies may not be able to address the accelerating impacts of climate-related disasters, let alone other types of growing risks, such as cyberattacks. Local and state budgets need to catch up with the realities they face today and prepare for what’s coming, with more funding and additional staff. Congress can help too, by increasing funding to a program called the Emergency Management Performance Grant, which is helping prop up local and state emergency management across the country.

We also need more transparency about who benefits from federal disaster spending and more congressional oversight of how billions of dollars in federal recovery money are being spent. An investigation after Hurricane Sandy highlighted how insurance companies made millions of dollars while systematically underpaying survivors. Some private companies profit greatly from recovery contracts. In Kentucky, for example, debris removal has run to more than five times as much as the state’s initial estimate, raising questions about the bidding process by which the contractors were selected. Finally, we need a better way to make contractors available to homeowners — and a better way to prevent predatory practices.

Luck and hope won’t fix all of this, and all of this is coming for all of us, but for good fortune.