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FEMA Reforms Will Get Aid More Quickly to Disaster Survivors

Rules changes will streamline the application process and expand assistance for temporary housing and immediate needs.

By Kim Tyrrell  |  January 22, 2024

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently announced a slate of changes to some long-standing rules about assistance after a disaster.

It’s no secret that FEMA’s process for distributing individual help can be glacial and burdensome. And, as many homeowners have learned, their insurance often doesn’t come close to covering the cost of disaster-related repairs. The December 2023 Marshall Fire, which destroyed over 1,000 homes southeast of Boulder, Colo., brought these issues to light when homeowners were unable to quickly get the assistance they needed. Many found they were underinsured and unable to rebuild.

FEMA hopes that beginning March 22, states, tribes and those impacted by disasters will have an easier time getting what they need. Here’s a summary of the changes:

  • Disaster survivors will no longer have to apply for a loan through the Small Business Administration to receive FEMA assistance.
  •  FEMA can now help homeowners cover costs not covered by insurance. Previously, if an insurance payout exceeded the agency’s cap of $42,500, FEMA was unable to offer additional assistance. Going forward, homeowners can now get the difference covered by FEMA. This is especially important as homeowners are finding it increasingly difficult to pay rising premiums and often can’t afford insurance without high deductibles.
  • After disaster strikes, people with disabilities can now rebuild their homes to make them more accessible using FEMA funds; homes with issues, such as a leaky roof, that existed before a disaster can get funding to make repairs.
  • A new category of aid, “displacement assistance,” helps people who are unable to return to their homes by providing money for temporary housing while they look for a new place.
  • FEMA is removing the barriers to critical needs assistance, which is an immediate $750 payment that disaster survivors can tap into after a disaster to help them acquire food, clothing or anything else they need. Previously, states and tribes had to apply for this type of assistance, and it was granted on a case-by-case basis. Now, the $750 becomes available as soon as a disaster is declared that meets FEMA’s requirements for individual assistance.

To learn more about programs available to states and state policy options, see NCSL’s new report, State Policy Considerations for Disaster Risk and Resilience. NCSL also just released a Resilience Planning Policy Toolkit, which aims to be a one-stop resource for policymakers looking to help their states better prepare for extreme weather and future disasters.

Kim Tyrrell is the associate director of NCSL’s Environment Program.

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