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Recovery from a disaster like Hurricane Ian takes years, and nonprofits play many pivotal roles before and after FEMA aid runs out

  • Written by Michelle Annette Meyer, Director, Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center; Associate Professor of Urban Planning, Texas A&M University
Recovery from a disaster like Hurricane Ian takes years, and nonprofits play many pivotal roles before and after FEMA aid runs out

Massive storms like Ian[1] and Fiona[2] mark the beginning of a long and frustrating process[3] for anyone who loses their home and possessions.

Recovery usually takes years.

Everyone’s experience is unique, but I’ve noticed some common patterns while researching disaster recovery[4]. Understanding this complex process, which includes dozens of nonprofit and government programs – along with what resources are available and how aid is distributed – can benefit survivors and those who want to help them.

Initial relief

At first, relatives, friends and neighbors may provide basic necessities like shelter, child care, transportation, food and water. They might assist with debris removal.

In addition, nonprofits, religious institutions and groups of volunteers flock to affected areas. They remove debris, place tarps on houses[5] and clean flooded properties[6].

These clusters of do-gooders[7] often respond to requests[8] via organizations that match disaster survivors with volunteers.

Once this support dissipates[9], everything gets much harder – including emotionally.

Where rebuilding funds come from

Homeowner and flood insurance[10], supplemented by savings, are the most common sources of money for rebuilding[11] housing destroyed or damaged by disasters.

Unfortunately, rising building costs[12] and housing values have exacerbated underinsurance[13] – leaving more people without the right kind of insurance or too little coverage. And most Americans have less than US$7,000[14] saved up.

Replacing demolished homes usually costs more than new construction[15]. Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds and renovates homes for people unable to afford them, spends up to $100,000 per house[16]. That is likely less than an individual would pay because of Habitat’s ability to get discounted supplies and its reliance on volunteer labor.

Even those with insurance covering home reconstruction must document all losses and contact insurers right away – starting what could be years of paperwork for reimbursements and applications for several kinds of aid.

FEMA’s role

Survivors can get up to $37,900 for home repairs[17] beyond what their insurance covers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency[18]. FEMA also may provide up to $37,900 in individual assistance funds to meet other needs.

Known as IA, these funds can pay for things like child care, funeral expenses, medical costs and furniture after most federally declared disasters. Eligible expenses must be directly linked to the disaster and not covered by insurance or savings.

Survivors apply online or at disaster resource centers[19], which operate in local community centers, gyms or arenas. These temporary offices are one-stop shops where residents learn about and apply for government and nonprofit recovery programs.

I have seen this process frustrate or overwhelm survivors. They find FEMA paperwork grueling because of the details, records and time required.

Even if you qualify for the maximum $37,900 available in 2022[20], it is unlikely to fully cover rebuilding costs. And most applicants receive less than that.

Some survivors get only a one-time $500 payment from FEMA to cover what it calls “critical needs[21].”

After Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and Louisiana[22] in 2017, claimants received an average of about $4,000[23]. In addition, FEMA regularly denies claims[24]. In those cases, FEMA asks disaster survivors for additional documentation if they wish to appeal. Survivors can also appeal to FEMA to increase the amount they were awarded.

Survivors don’t repay FEMA’s individual assistance program if they follow all guidelines[25], such as not using housing funds to get a car. They can also apply for a Small Business Administration[26] loan to help cover recovery costs for their home or business.

FEMA individual assistance and SBA loan programs usually stop accepting new applications 18 months after a disaster.

People with adequate insurance coverage and enough savings – and who qualify for FEMA grants and Small Business Administration loans – often rebuild their homes as quickly as within six months and generally within two years.

Those ineligible for FEMA’s aid, or those who need more help than it offers, can turn to nonprofits.

Nonprofits step in

Many nonprofits aim to support many disaster survivors’ needs, such as housing, mental and physical health care, transportation and employment. They also help survivors file FEMA appeals.

Several national nonprofits[27] are experts at disaster case management, helping survivors apply for available services and funding. Others assist with repairs[28] or complete home rebuilds.

Faith-based nonprofits[29] like United Methodist Committee on Relief, St. Vincent de Paul, Lutheran Disaster Response and INCA Relief USA are among those providing or supporting disaster case management. Mennonite Disaster Services offers much-needed rebuilding and repairs small and large. These organizations stay in affected areas for years to walk survivors through recovery.

I study what are called long-term recovery groups[30]. They coordinate and collaborate with local and national nonprofits to reduce the burden on disaster survivors so they don’t need to shop around for help at dozens of different organizations.

HUD’s role

Local and state governments[31] also play a big role. One way is through distributing the funds that originate with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery[32] program.

Priorities and eligibility for CDBG-DR aid vary for each place and disaster, and this source of assistance helps more than just homeowners. Examples include issuing forgivable loans to landlords to rebuild rental housing[33], rebuilding public housing, buying out properties in floodplains[34] and providing funds to pay for the elevation of homes to make them less likely to be flooded in the future.

This funding tends to take a long time[35] to access. In 2022, six years after Hurricane Matthew struck South Carolina and North Carolina, I participated in a study[36] that found some survivors were still awaiting a response to their application for funds that would pay for either housing elevation or a buyout.

Some never reach the finish line

Some people never return and rebuild after a disaster.

New Orleans’ population is smaller[37] now than before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. The city has become more white and Hispanic[38] – indicating that many Black residents never returned.

Permanent displacement happens even in small towns after smaller-scale disasters. A research partner and I found that 12% of the houses in the town of West, Texas[39], weren’t rebuilt within three years of a tragic fertilizer plant explosion that upended life in that community of 2,800 in 2013.

People who recover first are usually wealthy and white[40]. Those facing many hardships even before a disaster occurs are more likely to never[41] fully recover, because of inequities[42] at each step.

FEMA has found inequities in its own aid processes[43], confirming what scholars have pointed out[44] for years.

Among homeowners, those with high incomes[45] in predominantly white communities get more aid than others. Small Business Administration loans hinge on creditworthiness, privileging those with high credit scores and incomes. People over 65[46] may refuse to take on loans because they live on small pensions or Social Security benefits.

Who gets less help – or none at all

Renters[47] get little of this aid, even though rental properties are the slowest to be repaired and rents rise after disasters because of high demand and low supply.

People who live in mobile homes, as many do in Florida[48], have trouble finding aid to replace demolished housing. Mobile home parks are slow to reopen[49] after disasters, if they don’t close for good.

Survivors who are undocumented immigrants[50] or were homeless before disasters[51] are left out of most government disaster recovery programs.

While nonprofits do make low-income survivors a priority, they work fastest with the owners of single-family homes[52]. Nonprofits rarely repair mobile homes, rental units or multifamily housing like apartments and condos.

As a result, it’s up to the state and local government agencies that disburse HUD disaster funds to assist with recovery efforts for people who reside in these kinds of affordable housing[53].


  1. ^ storms like Ian (
  2. ^ Fiona (
  3. ^ long and frustrating process (
  4. ^ while researching disaster recovery (
  5. ^ place tarps on houses (
  6. ^ clean flooded properties (
  7. ^ clusters of do-gooders (
  8. ^ respond to requests (
  9. ^ Once this support dissipates (
  10. ^ Homeowner and flood insurance (
  11. ^ the most common sources of money for rebuilding (
  12. ^ rising building costs (
  13. ^ exacerbated underinsurance (
  14. ^ most Americans have less than US$7,000 (
  15. ^ usually costs more than new construction (
  16. ^ spends up to $100,000 per house (
  17. ^ $37,900 for home repairs (
  18. ^ Federal Emergency Management Agency (
  19. ^ apply online or at disaster resource centers (
  20. ^ available in 2022 (
  21. ^ critical needs (
  22. ^ Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and Louisiana (
  23. ^ claimants received an average of about $4,000 (
  24. ^ FEMA regularly denies claims (
  25. ^ follow all guidelines (
  26. ^ Small Business Administration (
  27. ^ Several national nonprofits (
  28. ^ Others assist with repairs (
  29. ^ Faith-based nonprofits (
  30. ^ long-term recovery groups (
  31. ^ Local and state governments (
  32. ^ Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (
  33. ^ forgivable loans to landlords to rebuild rental housing (
  34. ^ buying out properties in floodplains (
  35. ^ This funding tends to take a long time (
  36. ^ I participated in a study (
  37. ^ New Orleans’ population is smaller (
  38. ^ become more white and Hispanic (
  39. ^ 12% of the houses in the town of West, Texas (
  40. ^ wealthy and white (
  41. ^ are more likely to never (
  42. ^ because of inequities (
  43. ^ found inequities in its own aid processes (
  44. ^ scholars have pointed out (
  45. ^ those with high incomes (
  46. ^ People over 65 (
  47. ^ Renters (
  48. ^ many do in Florida (
  49. ^ Mobile home parks are slow to reopen (
  50. ^ undocumented immigrants (
  51. ^ homeless before disasters (
  52. ^ owners of single-family homes (
  53. ^ affordable housing (

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