As Western Wildfires Worsen, FEMA Is Denying Most People Who Ask For Help
Brenda and Francis Dairy's small ranch house, tucked into the Oregon woods, was built to withstand a wildfire. The siding was concrete, the roof metal. It didn't matter. On Sept. 7 of last year, as the sky turned dark orange and the air grew thick with smoke, flames tore through nearby trees and engulfed the house entirely.
The Beachie Creek Fire destroyed the life that the Dairys had built for themselves in the small town of Gates. Brenda Dairy had spent her free time sewing quilts. Her husband, a disabled veteran, carved wood pens in his shop.
After the fire, they bounced between relatives' houses for a while. But they needed a more stable place to live and a way to pay for it, so they went to the government agency set up to help: the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA didn't help them, Brenda Dairy says. Paperwork tripped them up. She said she provided copies of her husband's Social Security card and other documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but FEMA said the documents didn't match records in the agency's database.
"I went round and round with them about it," she said. "They kept telling us that's not his Social Security number — it does not match it. They just kept saying it doesn't match. They never offered any explanation."
When the couple applied for a loan through another federal agency — the Small Business Administration — there was no problem verifying Francis Dairy's Social Security number. SBA funds helped them recoup some losses, but they missed out on FEMA aid, which can help people with things like rent, medical costs and moving or storage costs.
FEMA is supposed to help people who lost property, maybe even their homes, in a natural disaster. But year after year, FEMA has been denying a higher percentage of claims. Data from the agency shows that Brenda and Francis Dairy are just one household of thousands in Oregon and California that indicated they had damage from wildfires last year but were denied help by FEMA.
Internal FEMA documents obtained in a joint investigation by NPR, Jefferson Public Radio and the California Newsroom — as well as interviews with more than 60 wildfire survivors, advocates and current and former government officials — reveal how and why FEMA routinely denies the vast majority of wildfire claims.
During last year's fire season in Oregon, FEMA didn't approve roughly 70% of claims. That's after FEMA says it filtered out applications it had deemed potentially fraudulent. In California, FEMA didn't approve 86% of claims. But FEMA hasn't said, despite repeated requests, how many of those it believed were fraudulent or if the denial rates indicate people are being wrongly denied.
The investigation also found that the very tools FEMA uses to screen out fraudulent claims are blocking people who did lose their homes from getting help. FEMA's automated application-review system rejects applicants if it can't verify a person's identity or residence, for example. That's what happened with Francis Dairy's Social Security number.
In essence, FEMA's system tends to deny first and require applicants to appeal and try to undo the denial. Most people either give up or struggle to navigate the process.
A 2020 report obtained by NPR and Jefferson Public Radio through the Freedom of Information Act captures the frustration. FEMA conducted a random survey of people who registered for disaster assistance.
More than 1,000 comments — roughly a quarter of the sample — were about poor communication: people who failed to find a FEMA representative who spoke Spanish, people who never received letters back from FEMA, applications that were confusing, and more.
FEMA, for its part, says it needs this process to weed out fraudulent claims, which have been coming at a record pace. Still, FEMA's new administrator, Deanne Criswell, acknowledges that the agency has work to do to make it easier to get money in the hands of survivors.
"I think that right now we can do a better job of trying to make sure that our programs are more accessible and easily accessible for individuals, so they know what to ask for and what they would be eligible for," she said at a congressional hearing last week.
It's getting hotter, not better
As wildfires burn more homes, more people will turn to FEMA for aid. That could also mean more attempts to defraud the government. The agency will have to figure out how to get money to those who deserve it and keep out those who don't.
Last year was the West Coast's most catastrophic wildfire season in recorded history. Before 2020, Oregon had never had a wildfire destroy thousands of homes in a single day. The fires hit hard in one of the most heavily Hispanic parts of Jackson County, leaving people who don't speak English as a first language to navigate FEMA's complex system.
It was also a record-breaking year for California, which has endured several years of deadly and destructive fire seasons. Then farther north, a wildfire incinerated almost an entire town in Washington state, though that didn't trigger an immediate federal disaster declaration.
Scientists say that drought resulting from climate change is one of the leading causes of increasingly destructive fire seasons — and they're going to get worse.
FEMA says its program for individuals and households provides aid for "necessary expenses and serious needs'' after a federal disaster like these wildfires. A survivor today can be eligible for up to $72,000 for things such as repairs on a home, money to cover rent while displaced and the cost of replacing belongings.
But the process for getting that money is a complex one.
"I sent them papers, and sent them papers, and sent them more papers"
The techniques FEMA uses to weed out ineligible or fraudulent applicants can end up denying aid to disaster survivors whose cases may be legitimate but who can't provide the documents FEMA needs to verify a claim — people who in some cases just lost their entire home and belongings.
People like Maria Ladesma Gonzalez.
It was an unusually hot spring afternoon when an old sedan pulled up to the curb of a ranch house in Medford, Ore. Wind chimes rattled from the porch. Ladesma got out of the back seat; she'd caught a ride home from a friend after a long day of cleaning another family's house.
But it isn't really her home. Ladesma and her 21-year-old daughter share the space with a friend who offered them two rooms to rent after a wildfire destroyed their mobile home last year.
She dropped her purse onto the counter next to a pile of groceries that wouldn't fit into the cabinets — loaves of bread, boxed crackers, tortilla chips. Ladesma and her daughter used to have their own kitchen and a small yard where their two chihuahuas could run around.
She says she has had to pay twice as much in rent as she used to pay for her mobile home in the southern Oregon town of Phoenix, so she turned to FEMA. "I asked them for help to pay for rent," Ladesma says, speaking Spanish through an interpreter. "I sent them papers, and sent them papers, and sent them more papers."
That wasn't enough. FEMA also required her to prove she's paying rent through a lease agreement and rent receipts. She got this place from a friend, and she says she has only a verbal lease agreement and pays rent in cash. She says she can't provide the documents FEMA has asked for, so she's losing out on aid she needs.
FEMA did not respond to questions about how someone in Ladesma's situation could prove she is eligible for help.
Now Ladesma says she needs to move out. She found a two-bedroom house to rent, but at $2,000 a month, the cost would be even higher than what she's paying now — and four times what she was paying before the fire. It's expensive, she says, but at least then she'll have rent receipts to show FEMA.
"We're suffering," Ladesma said. "We've gone through horrible things. I don't wish that upon anyone. People need a place to live. There are many people who are suffering like I'm suffering."
A case like Ladesma's presents a dilemma for FEMA: The agency is dealing with a surge in fraudulent applications, and it can't give money to every person who says they were a disaster victim. So it needs to balance getting help to people who need it with keeping out those who would take advantage of taxpayer money.
"Not every application that looks initially like it could be fraud ultimately is," FEMA's assistant administrator for recovery, Keith Turi, told NPR. "And so in some cases, it may just require us to obtain additional information from the survivor ... and then they can move forward in the process."
People like Ladesma haven't found it to be so simple.
FEMA cracked down on fraud after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It gave out hundreds of millions of dollars to fraudulent or ineligible applicants after the storm, according to the Government Accountability Office. The fiasco led to calls from Congress that the agency tighten its requirements for the program. FEMA began doing more rigorous checks of personal information from applicants seeking aid after a disaster.
Now, some in Congress say the requirements have gone too far.
"They have lurched from one extreme to the other," says Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees FEMA. "After Katrina, there was a whole lot of publicity about people who got assistance who were not eligible for assistance, and then they swung way too far in the other direction."
After the Oregon fires, 21,000 applications were referred for assistance. About 9,000 — nearly half — were potentially fraudulent and were referred to investigators, according to a document obtained by NPR.
Of the remaining applications it didn't deem fraudulent, FEMA still failed to approve 71% of them.
There are legitimate reasons to deny applications: if the house was a second home or if the person had homeowners or rental insurance that covered expenses.
But for people who don't fall in those categories, it's still possible to get denied, even wrongly denied. For example, when someone registers with FEMA after a disaster, the application asks for basic information: name, date of birth, address, insurance status and income.
With each question, a computer program searches for matches in FEMA's databases. If any part of an applicant's information doesn't match, the agency will send a letter declaring the person ineligible and ask for more proof.
It happens: Among just the people surveyed by FEMA who applied for disaster assistance, more than 50 complained that the agency was not able to verify their occupancy or identity.
"If you don't have papers for the house, FEMA will not give help," one respondent wrote. "My grandfather gave me the land and I built this house but I do not have the papers. I only have an affidavit for the house but not the deed."
Even for those who had all the right papers, proving you are who you say you are isn't as straightforward as it might seem. The wildfire may have destroyed computers, backed-up files and paper documents.
There are other complications: Roommates who share the same address, married couples who have different last names in public records or tenants of a landlord who had already filed for help at the same address are easily tripped up by FEMA's system.
FEMA's process can also be a challenge for people who are less well-off — for example, those who live in a mobile home parked on land they don't own. Names transliterated into English with different spellings can trigger a denial. Many people who lost homes in Oregon last year lived in mobile homes or were Hispanic.
FEMA says its denial system is necessary to root out fraudulent or otherwise ineligible applications. Over 130,000 were flagged as fraudulent during the past year and a half nationwide, according to a letter that DeFazio's committee sent to FEMA questioning the way the agency runs the aid program.
Advocates say the crackdown on fraud comes at a price.
"It's very normal for federal programs to want to focus on waste, fraud and abuse and to prevent it where they can," says Sarah Saadian of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, who formed a group to help get federal aid to people struck by disaster. "But if by doing so they are drawing the circle of who is eligible so narrowly that you lose many, many people who are in need of assistance, then you're not really balancing those priorities well."
A world where "ineligible" doesn't mean you don't qualify
Three months after the Oregon fires, FEMA itself was advising people like Ladesma and Brenda and Francis Dairy to appeal the decisions that the agency issued, with the goal of getting them aid that they might have been eligible to receive.
In Oregon, only 375 people appealed of the 15,921 who were denied. Only 67 were approved. One reason: FEMA's complex process, from beginning to end, has become a barrier. And people seeking help sometimes get contradictory answers from the agency.
Saadian says even though FEMA publishes a 281-page policy guide on the aid program, there are still more documents and policies the agency won't release. Without those, she says, advocates and victims are left "trying to piece together what the hell's happening here."
It's the fine print that can trip up people like Robin Parker.
Parker's single-family home in Talent, Ore., where she lived with her husband and teenage daughter, burned to the ground last fall. Her neighbors' houses across the street, on the other side of the fire line, were spared. Now she's living with her husband, who's disabled as an amputee, in a recreational vehicle and a storage shed on the ground where their house used to stand.
She says her insurance settlement won't be enough to cover all the losses from the fire.
She waited for months to learn whether she would get any aid and called FEMA in June. She told the FEMA representative the call was being recorded and let NPR listen to the 43-minute recording.
To get an answer, she needed to be transferred to a specialist, who told her FEMA had mailed her 11 letters since the fires. The letters, it turned out, had been sent to a post office that Parker no longer used after being displaced by the fire. She hadn't received any of them.
The FEMA specialist struggled to get the computer system to let her access those letters, which presumably would have explained why Parker wasn't eligible.
"You and I will both be confused by the time we're done with this," the FEMA specialist told Parker. "It's pretty confusing, and if you've never done it before, it's overwhelming."
"That's a good word for it," Parker replied.
The FEMA specialist eventually came back with the answer: Because Parker's insurance paid more than $36,000, the maximum that FEMA will give in housing aid, the agency considered her losses to be fully covered.
A FEMA spokesman confirmed to NPR that the answer Parker finally received was correct. The explanation is in Figure 8 on Page 50 of that 281-page policy guide.
The FEMA adviser on the phone is just one of many people, including government officials, who struggle to explain the rules for who can and can't get aid.
Oregon state Rep. Pam Marsh, who represents the part of the state hit hardest by last year's fires, says she has been able only to "minimally understand" why so many of her constituents received denial letters from FEMA. "We had legal support come in. We had workshops. We referred people to things," she says. "But I think the long-term nature of this, it wears people down."
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican who sits on the same House committee as DeFazio, says FEMA's complexity amounts to the "revictimization of our constituents."
"This is my job, and it's hard for me to keep up and navigate through this system," Graves says.
On multiple occasions during the reporting of this story, a FEMA spokesman provided incorrect information in response to questions on the application process, only later to correct himself.
People are confused because the process is confusing.
For example, of the 11 letters that Parker was sent but never received, at least one would have told her that — because she had insurance — she was "ineligible" for aid. The denial states, in all capital bold letters, "ASSISTANCE NOT APPROVED," followed by a bullet-point list of reasons that starts with "FEMA has determined you are not eligible for Housing Assistance because ..."
But FEMA couldn't know if Parker, or anyone else, was eligible or not at that point. It needed more information about her insurance settlement.
"I don't think they realize the impact of this terminology," says Chris Currie, who led a Government Accountability Office report published last year highlighting the confusion. "Ineligible sounds like 'denied.' I don't know about you, but to me it sounds like 'denied.' But that's not what it means."
FEMA encouraged these people to appeal their decision, but most gave up after receiving the letter with those bold printed words.
"The first thing, what honestly happens for most people I've seen, is they get their denial letter, they throw it in the trash," says Valerie Brown of United Policyholders, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of people who have insurance.
FEMA discontinued use of that letter after the Oregon fire in September.
Elizabeth Zimmerman, an associate administrator for FEMA during Barack Obama's administration, says some of the language in the letters that the agency sends can "aggravate a lot of people on a good day — let alone the worst day of their lives."
A failure to communicate
Jose Macias lost his home in Phoenix, Ore., to the Almeda Fire in 2020. He says he never got any aid from FEMA.
"They said the FEMA was just for people who don't have insurance," he said. And that's when he gave up.
He did receive some insurance money, but it wasn't enough to cover his expenses. So far, he says, the insurance payout has covered only the cost of staying in hotels for several weeks, then an apartment that he and his wife are now renting. He's using his own money to rebuild.
He didn't know it at the time, but he could have been eligible for a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration, even though he doesn't have a small business. That loan could be used to pay construction costs.
He says he visited several centers where FEMA representatives were helping fire survivors, but they didn't tell him about the SBA option. FEMA says its policy is to send a letter telling people like Macias about the SBA. He says he never received a letter. A FEMA spokesman declined to confirm if the agency sent Macias such a letter, citing privacy concerns.
Na'ilah Dawkins, a former FEMA employee who worked with survivors applying after the Oregon wildfires, says the process was sometimes rushed, but someone should have known to refer Macias to the SBA either in person or by mail.
"Sometimes paper doesn't do it," says Dawkins. "If your house burned down, how on earth are you going to know the paper documents you get are telling you about the eligibility? I don't think FEMA thinks about that."
Macias says he would like to apply for the SBA loan. But nearly 10 months after his home burned down, it's too late. The deadline to apply has passed.
A few months ago, outside where his home once stood, it was hard to hear Macias speak over the intermittent screeching of a power saw cutting through wood nearby. Many of his neighbors were more than halfway through the rebuilding process; some had even finished their homes and were ready to move back in.
Macias could only look down at an empty concrete foundation. He's trying to pay to rebuild what he can out of pocket, little by little, until he runs out of money. That loan would have really helped.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.