Over the past decade, the Federal Emergency Management Administration has paid tens of billions of dollars to local governments and nonprofit groups. But rather than assuming FEMA reimbursements are a sure thing, data compiled by the Associated Press shows Texas governments and nonprofits should expect FEMA to deny a small percentage of reimbursement requests.
From August 1998, when Tropical Storm Charley struck Texas, to August of this year, when Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas Coast, FEMA reimbursed Texas agencies to the tune of $4.5 billion. That total includes reimbursements for emergencies other than tropical storms and hurricanes, such as the fertilizer plant explosion that rocked the city of West in 2013.
Of the 5,187 Texas governments and nonprofits that applied for FEMA money, 34 had their initial funding requests denied, leading them to file 54 appeals with FEMA. FEMA denied 72 percent of those appeals, meaning the odds were against Texas governments and nonprofits in the appeals process after the initial denial.
Though the denied appeals were a small fraction of the number of reimbursement requests issued by Texas groups, they amounted to $155,712, 210 in funding that did not come through, enough to strain finances of many nonprofits and municipalities.
Texas entities fared worse than the United States overall, according to FEMA data compiled and analyzed by the Associated Press. The AP found FEMA rejected two-thirds of appeals nationwide, whereas FEMA denied almost three-quarters of appeals in Texas.
For its own part, FEMA’s public assistance director Christopher Logan told the AP FEMA has taken steps to avoid misunderstandings with local governments by overhauling its disaster operations to provide each applicant with a single contact person and more information about the potential pitfalls in seeking federal aid.
The goal of the redesign was “to help them understand what we can pay for and what we can’t pay for — so that we set the expectations up front so we don’t have those kind of misunderstandings,” Logan said.
While FEMA records show Texas faced an array of disasters over the last decade, such as fires, explosions and winter storms, hurricanes and their less-powerful kin tropical storms received the bulk of FEMA reimbursement funding: $3.9 billion, or 87 percent.
Hurricanes and tropical storms also proved to be the events for which FEMA was most likely to deny applicants in Texas. Of the 39 appeals from Texas governments and nonprofits that FEMA denied over the last two decades, 31 were related to hurricanes and tropical storms.
As a result, 99 percent of the reimbursement funds FEMA denied to Texas governments and nonprofits over the last two decades were connected to hurricanes and tropical storms.
The data gathered by the Associated Press shows FEMA, as of mid-October, had funded Hurricane Harvey reimbursement requests totaling $181 million, which hardly scratches the surface of the storm’s total costs, which Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated to be between $150 and $180 billion dollars.
As Texas governments and nonprofits continue to send FEMA reimbursement requests, however, data from past disasters suggest they should not take actually receiving those funds for granted.