The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assess damages from March 2019 storm in Rolling Fork, Miss.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assess damages from March 2019 storm in Rolling Fork, Miss.

As peak tornado season bears down on the Southeast, On Second Thought is looking at who gets aid after disasters. A recent NPR investigation found federal emergency money has been a political football for both parties. Research from Carnegie Mellon and other sources shows how much people affected by disasters get can depend on how their districts vote.

Robert Benincasa is a producer for NPR Investigations. He researched and reported on the thousands of disaster buyouts Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA didn't want people to see.

On Second Thought host Virginia Prescott speaks with Robert Benincasa


Interview highlights

On how NPR’s Investigations team discovered inequity in federal funding after disasters 

The bigger picture here is that disasters are getting more common. So there's more opportunities for people to apply for aid. So, we looked at a particular aid program called the buyout program. It's where the government steps in and buys a property like a house so that it never experiences another disaster again [or] another insurance claim [and] no one there will ever be in harm's way again. The government comes in and pays the homeowner or the property owner the market value of that house prior to the disaster. And so we asked FEMA for the database of these properties that they refused and NPR sued FEMA and actually got the database of properties after a federal lawsuit.

On the racially charged information that was revealed in their findings

We found that most of the buyouts happened in zip codes or neighborhoods where the population was more than 85% white and not Hispanic. Now, this is out of step with the national population, which is 62% white and not Hispanic. So this, to us, sort of mirrored the existing inequities in the economy along racial lines. White households are more likely to own a home in the first place. They're more likely to have positive equity in that home, which is important. If you want to take advantage of a buyout, you have to be able to financially survive that process so that when you get the money from the buyout you can pay off your mortgage on the house and move on. So, what we saw this as [was] mirroring those inequities across households on racial lines in the country.

On how FEMA calculates which homes will qualify for buyouts

FEMA has guidelines that local localities, like counties and states, have to follow and the local governments or county government will say, “We want these homes in this area to be eligible for buyouts” and then the individual property owners will go through the process. But FEMA, here in Washington, while they do provide the funding, they provide 75% of the funding for the for a buyout. They don't decide which homes are going to get a buyout. It's up to local governments [and] local communities. And in many cases, it's been up to residents who've gone to their local government and said, “We want this” or “We don't want this.”

On whether FEMA considers economic or racial inequality for the buyout program

I take away that FEMA isn't necessarily engaged on the local level and on a community level. They're not in the weeds about the specifics of which community is getting the money and all that. My impression was that FEMA is not that engaged on this aspect of it.

On who is and isn’t getting help they need after a disaster

You have to look at it this way: when a disaster happens, there are people who are going to be better positioned to take advantage of the help than others and it might be something that many of us take for granted, like access to a computer, like knowing where your tax returns are [or] like knowing who to talk to. Those sorts of social inequities can be magnified in this stressful time after a disaster.

On how FEMA funds the program and governments are involved

It's part of the emergency management and disaster plans of a county or a state. They'll talk to the federal government and they'll say, “We're abiding by the federal guidelines and we think that this community — where there was a disaster, like a flood or a wildfire — that these folks should be able to get federal buyouts.” And then the federal government will come in and they'll pay three-quarters of the price and the locality or the state will pay 25%. And that's basically how it shakes out. It's a joint effort, but FEMA really is more the entity that's writing the check.

On whether Eleanor moved on from Manville, New Jersey, after several floods

Her process, like many people, took a few years for her paperwork to go through and all that. And she and her husband were planning on moving to Florida. Unfortunately, her husband died just before they got the buyout, but she did move down to Florida. And she's glad she did. For a lot of people. It's their ambivalence. It's their home. She was there for many years and they are thinking, “Well, do I want to leave or do I want to stay and try to rebuild my house. What happens when there's the next flood?” And that was part of the thinking that she and her neighbors have been going through.

On what happened to Manville after several people left because of disaster

Well, the incomes in Manville dropped and the property values dropped in comparison with other towns around Manville. And the demographics of the town started to change. The Hispanic population became higher in town and the kids who were only speaking Spanish in the home needed those extra services in the schools and that's why we spoke with the superintendent of schools. They needed help dealing learning English and that sort of thing. So, the demographics of the town shifted. The income and the wealth of the town sort of changed at that point.

On how income disparities are exacerbated after disaster strikes

Some of the things that we've found through our reporting is that, again, the folks who are better positioned to take advantage of the help that's out there go ahead and take advantage of it and they find themselves more resilient after the disaster. They're their own household wealth and resources might get better after a disaster. Someone who couldn't take advantage [is] going to suffer. They're going to take that hit in a much more substantial way and they're going to have more problems financially and personally because of the the financial and the personal trauma of that disaster.

On what other calculations to consider to distribute aid to those who need it most

There are people who are part of this conversation who are saying that policymakers need to start looking harder at social factors like the things that we're talking about. And I'm not going to opine on that. I'm going to leave that to the policymakers. But, I think that when we when we talk more about climate change in the future, we're going to be talking not only about the science of climate change but about how families and individuals in different circumstances and different kinds of communities are able to survive and move on and have their changing circumstances made better potentially after a disaster. So I think that, moving forward, that conversation is going to include a lot of those aspects.


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