In drone footage of Hurricane Ida, which hit New Jersey in September of 2021, houses across the city of Lincoln Park look as though they are floating in a vast lake. It was the second deadliest storm to hit New Jersey since Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012, and as with extreme weather events across the country, Hurricane Ida disproportionately displaced low-income and marginalized people who have still been unable to return home even one and a half years later.
While federal assistance programs like FEMA are designed to help provide disaster relief to people who have lost their homes, the byzantine, bureaucratic process often keeps the vast majority of people who need it the most from accessing the aid they need to rebuild or relocate.
But some organizers are arguing that guaranteed income programs would help to fill the gaps.
With the exception of pandemic-related spending, the federal government has spent $12.5 billion on disaster relief each year since 2005. Prior to this time period, extreme weather events did not occur as frequently or with the same intensity as events like Hurricane Katrina, or more recently, Hurricanes Sandy and Ida. Scientists predict that extreme weather events will only continue to ramp up in frequency and intensity, so old models of providing aid to people experiencing these events need to be revisited.
Organizers work to identify solutions
Organizers on the ground where people have been displaced by extreme weather events are working to identify solutions for helping people recover following storms. One such organization is the New Jersey Recovery Project, which was founded by Superstorm Sandy survivors. Due to their own challenges in receiving aid following the storm, organizers with NJRP are working to identify ways for survivors of storms to get help despite the broken disaster recovery system. The federal system encompasses many parts, rules and regulations, and lengthy processes that result in delays for people who need immediate help.
“Hurricane Ida happened in September 2021, and these grant programs just opened up two months ago, because it needs to go through this whole process,” says Cameron Foster of NJRP in April of 2023. “We’re expecting people are not going to see this money that they need to recover and stay on their feet until two years after the storm hits. So something that NJRP has been advocating for is for is to make the Community Block Development Grant for Disaster Recovery (CBDG-DR) program permanent so that the minute a disaster strikes, there is money available for survivors like right then and there.”
In New York, a local model for providing cash directly to disaster survivors just launched a pilot program to fill the gaps in FEMA’s long response time. The program would provide $15,000 in cash to low- and middle-income households to help them get back on their feet. The program is the first of its kind, and Foster says the federally run CBDG-DR should follow that same blueprint.
“As of now we’re treating each disaster like a one-off, completely unpredictable event that needs congressional approval to go through all of these steps,” says Foster. “We know there are going to be more disasters. Ida hit communities that have been flooded like this before and it’s no longer just a shore issue in New Jersey. It’s all over the state, and soon all over the country.”
Obstacles and challenges in seeking aid
In addition to processing delays, federal disaster funding is often inaccessible to people who need it most. In many instances, disaster survivors often don’t have access to the internet, don’t speak English, or — due to the number of requirements for aid — may be disqualified. For example, in rural settings where people heat their homes with woodstoves and use solar panels to generate electricity, people who have lost their homes may not be eligible for temporary FEMA housing if they don’t have access to utilities.
When federal funding finally does make its way to some disaster survivors, it’s often not enough.
“Initially, there wasn’t enough money for Ida survivors, and we worked to make our voices heard with events that we had at the statehouse, we worked through the press to spread the word that it wasn’t enough money to get us home,” says Foster.
While NJRP works mostly on local and state-level solutions for disaster relief, Foster says they are advocating for reforms to federal programs, too. More funding and funding that is flexible at every level is what will help survivors be able to return home.
“We’re in the midst of passing legislation at the state level to allocate additional funds for Ida relief here that would partially make up for some of FEMA’s shortfalls after the fact and add additional flexibility to the CDBG-DR funding issues,” says Amanda Devecka-Rinear of the NJRP. “There is also legislation to give storm survivors a break from paying their mortgages so they can have cash on hand for their recovery and also not be faced with the threat of foreclosure.”
Addressing information gaps and language barriers
Advocacy at the local level is also vital to ensuring that survivors are connected to the relief they need. Central Florida Jobs with Justice (CFJWJ) has been working to build coalitions around disaster relief in Florida with the goal of filling gaps in the government’s response and connecting people with existing resources.
“There was a lot of stuff happening in a vacuum and we help to address some of that,” says Sam Delgado, an organizer with CFJWJ. “One big issue that persists is when we see governmental response to hurricanes here in Central Florida, a common pattern in divested communities is that there’s kicking the can of responsibility around between FEMA and the state and county governments.”
According to Delgado, many of the people in Osceola County didn’t qualify for assistance under federal guidelines. The population, which was predominantly people from Puerto Rico, were left on their own to deal with four feet of water in their homes for two weeks. Because of the flooding, they couldn’t use power and they lost all their food.
Delgado noted that language barriers cause huge information gaps and organizations like CFJWJ try to help make connections between folks who need aid and agencies doing direct assistance work. For example, they connected Smile Trust, out of Miami, with an organization called Hablamos Español that was working in a community in unincorporated Osceola County.
As a result of the CFJWJ coalition building, an organization providing direct aid to disaster survivors was given a seat on the Osceola County Disaster Response Board, which Delgado sees as an important step in closing the gaps in communication between the government and those who need immediate aid. Although federal funds are being distributed at unprecedented levels in response to ongoing climate disasters around the country, local governments are often unprepared to receive the funding and distribute it.
Listening to impacted communities about their needs
CFJWJ is part of a coalition called Central Florida Climate Action that convenes organizations that have a base of frontline communities of the people that are hit first and worse by the climate crisis.
“One of the goals for this coalition is to give voice to these communities here in Central Florida to be able to speak directly to these local institutions that can apply for that funding and say ‘these are the things that we need,’” says Delgado.
Delgado emphasizes that among local needs, union jobs are a fundamental necessity for the just transition to an environmentally sound and regenerative economy.
“Human capital is a natural resource and people need to be able to live dignified lives,” says Delgado. “It’s not just about having electric cars on the street. It’s about people being able to afford the lives that they live, being able to have your basic needs met, and have a pathway to be able to thrive.”
Over half a million people experience homelessness each year in the United States, and a growing number of these people have lost their homes due to climate disasters. Red tape, bureaucracy, stringent rules that often don’t make sense for disparate populations and geographies around the U.S., and time limits, often keep low-income and marginalized communities who need aid the most from being able to access federal funding to rebuild and return home.
My own community, in northern New Mexico, which is still reeling from the largest fire in the state’s history in 2022, is one such example. And without aid, many disaster survivors are displaced permanently. While FEMA representatives have said they are looking into ways to give cash to states who are better positioned to lead recovery for their citizens, this much-needed change — among others — can’t come fast enough.
Guaranteed income can help communities recover
According to Devecka-Rinear of NJRP, guaranteed income is one of the many tools that should be implemented to help communities recover.
“Storm survivors need a guaranteed income, for the first 3 months at a minimum, but often up to and beyond a year because of how dysfunctional our disaster recovery system is,” says Devecka-Rinear. She said that Ashely Shelton, from Power Louisiana “has a brilliant idea that we should just deposit money into people’s accounts when a storm is coming so they can evacuate or just have the resources they need in the same way we did with COVID relief.”
While guaranteed income programs have not traditionally been linked directly to disaster relief, there is abundant evidence that guaranteed income is a tool that works. Guaranteed income is one fast and direct way to help communities recover—or to help them implement measures to prevent displacement before an extreme weather event occurs.
Foster noted that there are new inland flood rules being put in place in New Jersey, such as designated mitigation requirements for inland areas that are now more at risk of flooding due to climate change, but that some of the rules don’t make it easy for working class people to comply, because it requires mitigation activities that people can’t necessarily afford.
Foster and others at the NJRP are worried that these new rules will push people out of their communities before a storm even hits. Implementing a relief program that would provide no-strings-attached cash to low- and middle-income households prior to a storm would give families the option to relocate or to invest in mitigation efforts that would protect their homes.