The people who need help the most after disasters are least able to get it from the federal government. Internal records show that FEMA knows it has a problem.



When a hurricane destroys your house, the clock starts ticking every day without stable shelter, puts survivors in danger. Sick people stop taking their medications. Medical devices stop working. Heat and mold threaten everyone's health. The federal government is supposed to help prevent that disaster after the disaster. But an NPR investigation finds that the people who need help the most are often less likely to get it and the government knows this. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has the first of three reports about who gets help after disasters.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Donnie Speight's house in Louisiana is a couple miles off the main road in a stand of pine trees. The gray mobile home is in a quiet, secluded spot. That's why she and her husband Steve chose it. Donnie and Steve lived in this mobile home for nearly 11 years. Steve was a Vietnam veteran. He had serious diabetes and mobility problems, and it took all Donnie had to care for him.

DONNIE SPEIGHT: I'm 77 years old. I got arthritis like crazy. It's in my hands and my arms, my neck, my hips, my knees. I don't know how I was doing it.

HERSHER: That was life before last August. That's when a Category 4 hurricane, Laura, hit the area head on.

SPEIGHT: I heard my grandson stay, watch out. And all of a sudden, bam (ph) - that window break.

HERSHER: A tree punched a 2-foot hole in the roof of the bedroom, knocked out the electricity and destroyed the air conditioner. Without power, Donnie couldn't use their electric lift to get Steve in and out of bed safely. She couldn't charge his electric wheelchair. It was dangerously hot in the house. The Speights didn't have home insurance. They lived on a fixed income. They didn't have money to repair the damage on their own.

So Donnie applied for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. She hoped she could get enough money to fix the hole in the roof and get electricity and air conditioning restored as quickly as possible. FEMA is supposed to be the safety net after a disaster, but a growing body of research finds that FEMA is failing to provide adequate help to some of the most vulnerable disaster survivors - poor people. Junia Howell is a sociologist at Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research.

JUNIA HOWELL: There's a broader discussion of, what is federal aid for and who should we be giving it to?

HERSHER: For years, researchers including Howell have found that FEMA's programs work in favor of wealthier Americans. But the agency has denied that happens and refused to share its own analyses with journalists or researchers. Now, internal documents obtained by NPR through a public records request make it clear that the agency has been aware of the disparity since at least 2019.

HOWELL: The thing that I think is really important to highlight and what this data show is that those who are more privileged are getting more out of FEMA.

HERSHER: Howell says FEMA's internal analyses confirmed that low-income survivors are less likely to receive money to repair damage and pay rent. When poor people do receive assistance, they tend to receive less. But why? The data suggests a few reasons. Poor people are more likely to be denied money because the damage to their house is deemed insufficient by FEMA. And people who can't prove that they personally own their home or are named on a lease are also cut off from assistance. FEMA now acknowledges that the disparities are a problem. Keith Turi is FEMA's assistant administrator for recovery.

KEITH TURI: Let me just say that we do understand our obligation to support disaster survivors in an equitable way. That is a responsibility that we have here at FEMA. And candidly, we have work to do there and we're committed to following through on it.

HERSHER: A lot of people are counting on FEMA to address disparities quickly. Climate change is driving more frequent storms, fires and floods. Across the country, thousands of families are still struggling to find stable housing months or even years after a disaster. And that means a lot of people are forced to move. Craig Fugate led FEMA between 2009 and 2017.

CRAIG FUGATE: I call it exporting the poor because no matter what you say you're doing, the end result is the poor are being displaced. I've watched it through Florida's hurricanes. It's not fair. And I think that's why we have to rethink the programs.

HERSHER: Nearly a year after Hurricane Laura, Donnie Speight is struggling to hold the pieces of her life together.

SPEIGHT: See; I filed for FEMA on this trailer. But all I got was 1,649.

HERSHER: Sixteen hundred forty-nine dollars - 1,200 to fix the roof plus $449 for a generator. But prices for repairs and equipment skyrocket after major disasters. Donnie says the cheapest generator you could find was $900, so there went the couple's savings. A contractor told them the roof repair would cost twice as much as FEMA gave them. They didn't have any way to make up the difference. FEMA doesn't take into account a person's savings when they decide how much money to give. Donnie and Steve lived with the hole in the bedroom ceiling all winter through the deep freeze, through countless rainstorms. Steve's health deteriorated.

SPEIGHT: I went through some hard times there with Steve, but we would have been married 39 years the second of this month.

HERSHER: Steve died in March. Donnie doesn't blame it on the storm, but their final months together would have been calmer, easier if the house wasn't in such disrepair. She's piecing things together as best she can and getting help from local charities. But without Steve's veteran's benefits and Social Security, things are precarious. Earlier this spring, a debt collector threatened to take the land.

SPEIGHT: We've been here for 11 years. I was going to say we ain't left yet. I haven't left yet.

HERSHER: And she hopes she doesn't have to leave. Meanwhile, the new hurricane season has already started. Forecasters expect more storms than usual.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.