Accessing Disaster Recovery Assistance Requires a Map and Compass

Reese May

Disaster recovery in America is complicated. Headlines abound with tales of systemic, interminable delay in delivering long term recovery assistance to impacted communities. In the intervening period, vulnerable survivors manage their best to stay afloat, often for years, with the limited Individual Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies, nonprofits and charitable organizations until more substantial long term rebuilding funds are available.

FEMA and the Small Business Administration (SBA) are the first line of federal financial assistance for disaster victims until longer-term funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) may arrive, years later. HUD Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) dollars are typically reserved for very severe disasters. Many smaller disasters (dozens each year across the country) to do not meet the threshold for this kind of assistance. In those cases, the FEMA and SBA programs represent the only financial assistance available to impacted households. Accessing the full amount of assistance from FEMA is not an intuitive process but the ability to do so could mean the difference between $3,300 in assistance and $33,000. For a single parent with young children, or a senior citizen on fixed income, facing expensive home repairs and an unknowable delay in additional assistance, every penny counts.

“How complicated can it be?” you might ask. Great question. Take a look below at the process survivors must navigate to receive basic recovery grants from FEMA.

Few disaster victims know that accessing all the assistance available from FEMA first requires a loan application from the SBA. Or that a denial from one agency might make you eligible for more assistance from the other. Receiving federal disaster aid often requires multiple applications from the disaster survivor that collect much of the same information. For an applicant experiencing the process, it is often unclear what, or when, things will happen next. Without this flowchart, it is difficult to explain precisely how or why the process works at all.

Now imagine trying to navigate this process while also being displaced from your home, caring for your family, returning to work, and responding to the demands of everyday life.

This is the reality for thousands of disaster-impacted Americans each year, many of whom are at risk of being pushed past their breaking point. Someone’s ability to cope is usually determined three primary factors:

  1. the time/Speed of their recovery,
  2. the predictability of the path to recovery for them, and
  3. their access to the resources necessary to fully recover.

As Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at SBP, I work with a team of talented and experienced leaders from around the country to develop creative ideas and innovative solutions to improve disaster recovery in America.

SBP is a non-profit disaster resilience and recovery organization whose mission is to reduce the time between disaster and recovery in order to prevent survivors being pushed beyond their breaking point. Our five strategic interventions aim at increasing the efficacy of the disaster recovery industry: We build homes for low income disaster survivors. We share our knowledge and resources with other recovery organizations to raise capacity and improve performance. We help individuals and businesses prepare for disaster through resilience training. We advise state and local disaster recovery leaders on best practices in recovery, and we advocate for policy reforms that will positively impact millions of Americans at-risk and impacted by disasters each year.

Systems-level change is never easy, but improving speed, predictability, and access to FEMA and SBA resources feels imminently achievable. Here are two ways we can combat the difficulties in navigating the FEMA/SBA recovery programs on the front lines in disaster impacted communities around the country:

First – We educate survivors on the system as it exists.

Knowledge is power and SBP works to help survivors understand and navigate the disaster assistance process. The flow chart above is taken from SBP’s digital training ‘Navigating the Assistance Process’ which provides survivors with practical, actionable information to help them advocate and access all the assistance they need. Spread this far and wide before and after disasters.

Second – We must simplify the assistance application process.

An ideal solution is one in which ALL responding federal agencies, in partnership with state and local government, implement a single application for assistance that would satisfy FEMA, SBA, and later the CDBG-DR housing recovery programs funded by HUD and operated at the state and local level. This would require agencies to share critical information and work together in times of disaster instead of passing the burden and delay of multiple applications along to survivors in their time of crisis.

I admit this would be challenging for a host of reasons so here is a modest first step:

FEMA and SBA should pilot a combined FEMA/SBA application in 2020 aimed at determining all forms of assistance (from each agency) a survivor may be eligible for via one application and implement a more streamlined eligibility and review complicated process.

This could be piloted and tested in simulation and then in a limited number of communities this year. If resources are the challenge, then let’s ask Congressional authorizers and appropriators to help drive simple changes that can so greatly improve the experiences of disaster survivors in their most challenging days.

That’s what I’ll be up to this year – let me know if you’d like to help!


As Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, Reese oversees SBP’s operations across the country. In this capacity, Reese consults with community and elected leaders at all levels, on how best to develop and implement and long-term disaster recovery programs that avoid common mistakes and barriers to a prompt, efficient and predictable recovery.