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Lower-Income Survivors Are Less Likely To Get FEMA Aid After Disaster, Documents Show

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An NPR investigation finds the federal government is not providing crucial assistance to some disaster survivors who need help the most. Internal documents from the Federal Emergency Management Agency reveal that low-income survivors of hurricanes are less likely to get money to repair their homes or cover the cost of rent, compared to more affluent people. Local officials and researchers say they also see racial disparities in who gets help.

NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports on - reports those disparities can erode entire neighborhoods.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Driving around Port Arthur, Texas, with John Beard feels like getting a personal tour of a family reunion.

JOHN BEARD: Now, where that little yellow house is, my aunt lived there. That's the Jacquet family home. Willie Jacquet is my wife's mother's cousin. That was my godparents' house. And right here is where I was born and raised.

HERSHER: The neighborhoods he's pointing out were once the thriving core of Black Port Arthur.

BEARD: This used to be a happening strip through here. There were beer joints, stores, confectioneries, barbecue pits, you name it - was all there. But this area is nothing like what it used to be, I'm telling you - nothing at all.

HERSHER: All of Port Arthur is surrounded by water. The city is on the Gulf of Mexico, which is bad news when a hurricane happens. And the neighborhood of El Vista is in a particularly low-lying spot. This is one of the few places that Black residents could live when the city was officially segregated.

BEARD: Everything here got flooded - everything. And I'm going to really show you something that's going to blow your mind.

HERSHER: Hurricane Harvey flooded Port Arthur nearly four years ago, but in El Vista, it looks like it was yesterday. A lot of houses still have blue tarps on their roofs. Yards are overgrown. Windows are missing.

BEARD: See these houses, like that one right there and this other one along, they - these were inhabited before the storm. There were people in here, but those people didn't come back.

HERSHER: Beard's served as a Port Arthur city councilmember for more than 15 years, and he lays the blame for what happened here partly at the feet of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. To show me an example, we pull up at one of the only houses left on this block.

BEARD: Hi. How are you doing? Ms. Payne home?

HERSHER: Shirley Payne raised her children in this house - and her grandchildren. When we arrive, her great-granddaughters are playing outside. During Harvey, she had four feet of water in her house. She says the only reason she was able to rebuild is because she didn't have to rely on FEMA. She had insurance. Her neighbors who left weren't so lucky.

SHIRLEY PAYNE: FEMA - let me tell you about FEMA.

HERSHER: She says she watched neighbors apply to FEMA for money to rebuild their homes, but they struggled to prove that they owned homes that had been passed down for generations. That's common in many historically segregated communities in the U.S.

PAYNE: A lot of people, the houses wasn't in their name.

HERSHER: It would take months, or even years, to iron out the paperwork. She says elderly neighbors and people with young kids couldn't wait that long for stable housing. They couldn't afford to front the cost of a hotel or an apartment, and that left a lot of people no choice but to leave.

PAYNE: A lot of these houses you see down the street here, that one that's still boarded up - that's the result of Harvey. It's just sad. It's just sad.

HERSHER: Today, about a quarter of the houses here are empty. Similar things happened to historically Black neighborhoods after Hurricane Katrina and to residents of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. This is something local officials and researchers have been sounding the alarm about for years.

Chauncia Willis is the co-founder of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management.

CHAUNCIA WILLIS: Oh, my gosh. This isn't new. This has been happening since the beginning of America's existence. America has been treating people of color and poor people terribly in disaster. They are not a priority.

HERSHER: That can have devastating long-term effects on entire communities. A study after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 compared Houston neighborhoods where people of color live to those where white residents live. It found that those in heavily minority neighborhoods were less likely to receive FEMA grants to repair their homes or cover the cost of rent. That led bankruptcy rates to spike by almost 40% in non-white neighborhoods.

WILLIS: We know there are structural inequities within the system of how FEMA does business - their programs, their policies, their funding.

HERSHER: FEMA argued for decades that its programs are fair because everyone is treated equally. If you don't have insurance, you can apply for money to repair your house, cover rent or replace belongings. The application requirements are the same for everyone - a level playing field, so to speak. Now, for the first time, the agency is publicly acknowledging that this approach benefits some people more than others.

Keith Turi is FEMA's assistant administrator for recovery.

KEITH TURI: Our programs have been built on providing equal treatment to survivors, but that's not necessarily equal outcome.

HERSHER: Systemic racism and poverty mean that many people of color and poor people don't go into disasters on a level playing field with white people or more affluent people. Internal documents obtained by NPR through our public records requests show FEMA is aware of income-based disparities and who gets help after disasters. But FEMA says it hasn't conducted similar analyses about race, in part because the agency doesn't have the data.

TURI: We're not currently collecting demographic data for the survivors that we serve. We do plan to add that to our collection in the near future.

HERSHER: FEMA would not say when it plans to begin collecting race data or whether that data will be made public. Willis says if FEMA wants to address racial disparities after disasters, it will need to go beyond studying the problem and fundamentally change its definition of what is fair.

WILLIS: We need to understand first who has the greatest need and who has the least access, and we're going to start from there. When you start from there, it benefits everyone.

HERSHER: One solution floated by experts is to limit who is eligible for FEMA assistance to make it more like SNAP benefits or Medicaid. The agency could also stop relying on disaster survivors to apply for help. Such changes would require Congress to intervene. Meanwhile, FEMA says it's asking for input from local leaders about how to make disaster aid more equitable.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.