Digital Dialogues

Expert ideation to solve policy challenges

September 2018

Digital Dialogue No. 1:

Simplifying and Speeding the Recovery Process

The Challenge

The recovery process for disaster victims can be long and complex. Government disaster aid is distributed through multiple agencies, each with their own processes and requirements. Many of these are duplicative and/or confusing for victims. Furthermore, much of the assistance provided is not targeted at those most in need and can take months or even years to reach victims. Delays in aid increase costs, prolong hardship, stall recovery, and can reverberate through the community for years to come.


What specific policies, if implemented, could reduce post-disaster complexity for households?

What specific actions can speed delivery of disaster aid to victims?

Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, SBP

America’s relief and recovery programs and processes are too numerous and too complicated for survivors to navigate, let alone in such urgent conditions. These programs and resources were created to help, but the frustration and exhaustion of the process often ends with survivors simply giving up.

When disaster strikes, survivors are immediately introduced to the application burden—an alphabet soup of acronyms and programs each with a separate (but similar) application, each with its own scheduled appointments, and each with its own eligibility and documentation processes. These redundancies burden survivors. FEMA, SBA and HUD should work as partners to develop and establish the primacy of a single, shared application—call it OneApp. This would allow impacted individuals to apply once and have their information shared with all relevant programs.

To further expedite this process, policymakers should enable taxpayers to opt-in (via check box on their annual tax returns) to a program that, in the event of a disaster, would allow the IRS to share information with FEMA, SBA, and other federal agencies that offer assistance. Much of the information required to apply for FEMA assistance and SBA loans is contained in annual taxpayer filings. The remaining information needed to apply for assistance (e.g. insurance coverage, homeownership information, financial history, etc.) could be submitted simultaneously via a voluntary supplemental form. By enabling taxpayers to opt-in via their tax filings some of the typical documentation problems and the redundancy of application submission can be eased.

Finally, FEMA’s Individual Assistance calculation formula should be simplified so that survivors can easily understand how award amounts were determined, and mount stronger appeals if appropriate. These communications are front line interactions between survivors and their government. Most residents just want to access the assistance they need and to be treated fairly in the process. Assessing whether assistance is fair is simply impossible without understanding how the assistance was calculated.

CEO, Insurance Institute for Building & Home Safety (IBHS)

General Counsel & Senior Vice President, Public Policy, IBHS

Albert Einstein is frequently (but perhaps inaccurately) cited for his definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Framing disaster recovery in these terms underscores the need to improve this process so that the goal of “building back better” becomes a reality.

Over the past year, devastating hurricanes and wildfires have challenged our disaster recovery system on financial, logistical, and humanitarian grounds. While all of these are critical pathways, one key focus related to our work at IBHS is leveraging disaster funds to incentivize a more resilient recovery.

Congress stepped up by passing the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which includes an increased post-disaster federal cost share to states and territories that undertake eligible mitigation actions (although the new regulatory framework is not yet developed). While a step in the right direction, there are other important reforms in the still-pending Disaster Recovery and Reform Act (DRRA), including additional funding for pre-disaster mitigation through the Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) fund.

The majority of these funds likely will be used for infrastructure improvements. But the people who live and work in stricken communities also need to be part of disaster recovery reform.

Based on IBHS research, we know how to make buildings more resilient—IBHS’ FORTIFIED Home™ standard improves hurricane and high wind performance, and our wildfire guidance focuses on defensible space and ember generation. The challenge is not knowing WHAT to do, but how to make it happen. Several years ago, FEMA stepped up by incorporating all of the elements of FORTIFIED Home-Hurricane into its P-804 Wind Retrofit Guide for Residential Buildings. Unfortunately, the complexities of the disaster recovery process have limited the opportunities to direct federal post-disaster funds to strengthening storm and wildfire-ravaged homes beyond their pre-disaster condition. Hurricane Florence offers the opportunity to implement an intelligent, forward-focused approach to long-term recovery that emphasizes more resilient buildings in order to achieve better results in the future.

Vice President for Public Policy, Enterprise Community Partners, Inc.

The Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program

In recent decades, HUD’s role in disaster recovery has significantly expanded through the Community Development Block Grant—Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program, which funds long-term disaster recovery in communities affected by Presidentially-declared major disasters. However, CDBG-DR has received criticism for being too slow, having too much red tape, and not being well-aligned with requirements of other federal recovery programs. While the federal disaster response and recovery framework needs a multi-agency overhaul, Congress can take action to help HUD streamline and strengthen CDBG-DR to reduce post-disaster complexity and speed the delivery of funds.

First, Congress can permanently authorize the CDBG-DR Program to enable a formal rulemaking process. Grantees and stakeholders will have an opportunity to weigh in through comments and advisory panels to ensure that the new regulations reflect best practices and lessons learned from past disasters. In this process, Congress should provide an annual appropriation for HUD to capitalize a Disaster Recovery Fund that can provide resources to communities before Congress makes supplemental appropriations.

Second, Congress should work with HUD to increase the number full-time disaster recovery staff, which would improve HUD’s administrative capacity to better support grantees and communities.

Third, each future CDBG-DR appropriation should include a set-aside for technical assistance and capacity building.

Fourth, HUD should design pre-approved model recovery programs and systems that grantees can take off the shelf and implement wholesale. By doing the work to offer efficient program designs upfront, HUD would enable jurisdictions to be able to plan for how they would use CDBG-DR funds before a major disaster is on the horizon.

Fifth, Congress can work with HUD and other agencies to streamline the environmental review process, establish criteria for streamlined review of multi-agency-funded projects, and loosen compliance requirements for some single-family housing rehabilitation projects.

Director, NYC Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations

What specific policies, if implemented, could reduce post-disaster complexity for households?

Access to financial resources is key to recovery.  The more resources homeowners can access on their own, the more likely and quickly they are to recover.  While these resources exist today, they need to be rationalized, streamlined, and clearly communicated before and after a disaster.  The under-enrollment in flood insurance before 2012, the low payments that resulted in litigation, and the confusing messaging about Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans limited the financial resources available to homeowners after Hurricane Sandy.  We need to create a continuum of recovery.

FEMA’s Individual Assistance and Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power programs are part of this continuum.  The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), SBA loans, and HUD’s Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) reimbursements need to be better linked and clearly communicated to fully realize a continuum of recovery.

Everyone needs to purchase flood insurance.  Despite NFIP’s limitations, the purchase of flood insurance remains one of the best ways for homeowners to prepare.

Homeowners should be encouraged to apply for SBA loans, but they shouldn’t be penalized for doing so.  The State or locality should be given flexibility to use HUD CDBG-DR funds to help pay back or supplement the SBA loans depending on the needs of the homeowners, the community, and the City.

After Hurricane Sandy, HUD created its first reimbursement program.  Reimbursement, clearly communicated as an option and provided early upon receipt of the HUD funding, is one of the simplest ways to help homeowners.

Not all homeowners will want to return.  There needs to be an early option for homeowners who want to sell their property.  In the immediate aftermath, a community may not be ready to decide whether properties should be redeveloped or returned to nature.  Federal flexibility allowing the immediate purchase of homes with a later determination of future use is key.

What specific actions can speed delivery of disaster aid to victims?

After Hurricane Sandy, multiple agencies provided multiple benefits with no relationship except they couldn’t be duplicated.  For each benefit, homeowners complete a separate application and get a new damage assessment.  To have a true continuum of recovery, we need an integrated case management and damage assessment system.

Delivery of disaster aid and communication about resources needs to happen on the ground in the communities partnering with local elected officials, civic leaders, and community-based organizations through joint outreach, opening joint local offices, and hiring local staff.

Senior Fellow, Urban Institute

Focusing on Disasters’ Victims, Fairly

Complicating the confusion surrounding disaster assistance is the question of whether it is fair and equitable. Now, we just don’t know if this is the case, especially for different racial, ethnic, linguistic, and age groups, as well as for physically challenged individuals, non-traditional families, and anyone in anything other than an occupant-owned single-family house.

Aid programs are understandably designed to get money out quickly, and to not duplicate other private and public resources. But a disaster safety net should center people. This means more than calculating the monetized value of lost or damaged property. It means ensuring that all households understand their options and make informed choices. It also means overcoming implicit biases and unintentional disparities in delivering funds. Finally, it means understanding the differential burden of losses on people with historically different means.

We ask for a lot of property information after disasters: title, insurance, location, damage, habitability, replacement value, and so forth. But, basic demographic information about applicants—and then eventual recipients and rejected households—is not collected presumably because of an underlying belief that the process and product of damage estimates are neutral. Yet, we know that disasters do not damage all people and places equally. What we don’t know is whether and how the aid meant to repair that damage corresponds to the needs.

One simple start to fixing this is to collect a few pieces of information from households seeking aid, and doing it at one early point after a disaster strikes. Information about people can be collected without adding much burden on the families or bureaucracy to the programs. These data can be requested during preliminary damage assessments, and especially during property inspections for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Individual Assistance program.

The information will paint a more accurate picture of damage, and can be shared between programs to streamline case management. It will also answer questions that communities have about whether and how aid is distributed by FEMA, from the Small Business Administration’s disaster home loans, and, when available, from the state and local funds provided through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery.

Better and more robust data won’t solve the possible problem. But, it will at least tell us if there is one.

Resident Scholar, Resources for the Future

Congress increasingly is appropriating significant emergency relief funds after natural disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is expected to allocate funds from the appropriations it receives and coordinate funds made available through other federal agencies. In September 2018, GAO reported that FEMA staff were overwhelmed by the need to respond to the wildfires and hurricanes of 2017, but did not recommend any actions to Congress or FEMA to address this problem in the future.

Congress should appropriate funds FEMA would use to staff a newly created post-disaster response unit. These staff would lead internal agency training and planning that would make FEMA staff more effective in the post-disaster environment. However, this unit would have other responsibilities.

First, because disasters are random and sporadic, these staff will have significant time available when they are not responding to a disaster. During those times, these same staff would have responsibility for supporting local communities’ emergency preparedness, as well as mitigation, plan development, and implementation.

In addition, these same staff would have the authority, even if it requires new legislation, to direct and coordinate how funds from all other agencies and programs such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program and the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Disaster Loan program get dispersed in the post-disaster setting. This heightened FEMA responsibility would require the emergency response unit staff to become experts on other Federal agency post-disaster programs.

Finally, program reforms in FEMA and other agencies should reduce the complexity of the aid application process in order to speed the distribution of that aid. That complexity is partly a consequence of poor coordination, but also can be traced to concerns over fraudulent claims and receiving aid for the same damage from different agencies. Application procedures and rules motivated by checks against fraudulent and multiple claims slow the distribution of aid. A greater willingness to accept an occasional fraudulent claim (to be addressed after aid has been distributed) can allow for a more understandable, coordinated, and efficient aid distribution system.

Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Oklahoma State University

To paraphrase the challenge, government disaster aid processes are complex, often duplicative, and confusing to victims. These factors delay recovery, affecting individuals and communities for years. As complex and frustrating as these processes can be, let us consider disasters to which the Stafford Act does not apply—those for which government assistance for victims is not available. Included among these are the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash spill, and other technological disasters. Victims of these events must turn to convoluted claims and litigation processes to seek redress for their losses. Research indicates that people who are involved with post-technological disaster compensation processes—ranging from claims to legal settlements to litigation—are likely to have elevated levels of stress. Moreover, community members embroiled in these processes live with protracted uncertainty and perpetual social disruption. Thus, efforts to seek reparation contribute additional adverse impacts. This is not to say that victims of “natural” disasters do not experience similar distress and upheavals. Rather, I am suggesting that we expand our policy considerations to include a variety of disaster situations.

One example of a policy implemented in direct response to a technological disaster is the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA-90). OPA-90 established the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund—funded by the oil industry—to cover a variety of post-spill costs, including individual claims for removal costs and damages. Under OPA-90, the primary responsible party for a spill is also required to set up a claims process to handle individual and business losses. However, the Act limited the amount of liability to $75 million. In the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon, this amount was clearly not enough. Moreover, the claims and compensation processes resulted in a quagmire of confusion and frustration for many victims. In particular, those receiving early (and much-needed) claims funds were typically required to waive their rights to seek additional, future compensation.

Just as we need to revisit existing policies to improve processes to aid victims of “natural” disasters, OPA-90 should be reformed to address lessons learned in the twenty-eight years since its passage.

Director, Consulting Services, CGI

During a natural or man-made disaster, having a robust data management system to track and map emergency funding and long-term rebuilding is critical for successful recovery efforts.  In our experience, there are three major factors that drive successful recovery efforts:

  • Maintaining public trust
  • Transparency
  • Federal reporting

During any disaster recovery, states must make every effort to maintain public trust.  Having a comprehensive system that provides clear traceability and helps identify fraud, waste, and abuse is the first major step toward building public trust.  This trust can also be fostered through transparency and data availability.  By providing clear, open, and transparent recovery data, government response efforts are available for the public to view and evaluate for themselves.  Open data also facilitates ease of audits and ease of federal reporting, as all disaster recovery funding comes with significant reporting requirements to maintain compliance with federal regulations. States should strongly consider proactively procuring a tested and proven disaster recovery system ahead of disaster events. This allows agencies responsible for executing response and recovery efforts to minimize adverse impacts to their citizens within an expedited timeframe. To balance preparedness with the interests of the taxpayers, states should also seek to develop creative contracting vehicles, such as consumption-based subscription models, which allow the state to defer the majority of system costs until there is a disaster and the system is put into use.  This will speed up the recovery efforts and get critical funding into the hands of the people who need it the most.

Department of Marine Affairs, University of Rhode Island

After a flood, FEMA inspectors, National Flood Insurance Program adjusters, Small Business Administration loss verifiers, private flood insurance adjusters, and others may assess damage to the property.  Individual visits by multiple entities are both time-consuming and costly.  They delay the time to payment and reduce the amount funds available to people affected by the flood.

I propose an experiment to test the viability of using video to serve as a property inspection that can be utilized across organizations.  The video would be scripted using detailed instructions provided to inspectors by the agencies and incorporate each item called for in the report on the property.  Its geographic position would be a part of the property record so that it could be integrated in geographic information systems that map other attributes of the event.   Such a video could then be shared with any needed agency, could produce a record of damage for any necessary verification, and could easily be audited.  Ideally, a first experiment of the feasibility of using video would include on the ground inspections to compare with the videos by individuals experienced in the process. If weaknesses are apparent, the video script would be revised to address the inspectors’ concerns. The appropriateness of the revised video record given existing law and regulation would also be reviewed.

The use of this technology only works as a governance innovation if it enhances efficiency and effectiveness.  If it meets those and perhaps other tests, then regulatory change incorporating the new approach across multiple organizations could proceed.

National Institute of Standards and Technology Community Resilience Fellow

Specific policies, which, if implemented, could reduce post-disaster complexity for households:

  • Clear insurance statements on what is covered by disaster
  • Better systems in place for inspection, assessment, and declaration of damage
  • Information management system so survivors don’t have to re-submit documents
  • Clear statement of acceptable proof of loss/ownership by federal agencies.
  • Better qualified and trained disaster case managers
  • Better management (screening, etc.,) of (local) assistance vendors
  • Manage information for realistic recovery time expectations
  • Better prepared jurisdictions and citizens
  • More focus on low and middle income families, special needs, older populations, and other vulnerable groups

What specific actions can speed delivery of disaster aid to victims?

  • Recovery funds through HUD Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG DR) should be a budgeted, annual allocation so that Congressional action is not required for this recovery assistance to be made available.
  • The regulations on use of disaster assistance funds and the general administrative framework could be better defined so that the grantee does not have to re-invent the wheel each time through use of a for-profit consultant.
  • Compliance with duplication of benefits guidelines that victims do not recieve reimbursement for the same recovery expense twice should be improved with pre-existing requirements/agreements to share information between aid agencies and insurance companies.
  • A cross-agency, federal information management system would end the each-new-disaster cycle of building a platform for storage of documentation and improve data management/privacy compliance.
  • Investments in better preparing local grantee and sub grantee(s).
  • More blue-sky resilience efforts especially for low and middle income families, special needs households, older populations, and more vulnerable groups.
  • Improved coordination between local HUD grantees and recovery efforts.