Hurricane Harvey victims hang their hopes on FEMA response

News Hour:

Nearly a week after Hurricane Harvey swamped her home in northeast Houston, Mimi Wilson is pondering how to start a new life with nothing – no house, no car and no paycheck after missing work.

She has applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Her priority: moving her two young daughters out of the shelter at Houston’s convention center.

“We’re just waiting on our hotel voucher,” she said. “I need to make a home for my children.”

FEMA’s response to tens of thousands of storm victims such as Wilson will be closely watched as the agency continues to repair an image badly damaged more than a decade ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The agency was accused of being slow to respond to victims in New Orleans and bungling delivery of basic services such as housing.

Congressional reforms followed and further changes were made after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Some say the improvement is noticeable.

“We found that FEMA has made a ton of progress since Katrina and Sandy,” said Chris Currie, director of emergency management and national preparedness issues at the Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan government watchdog agency.

“If you look back at Katrina, FEMA’s role was much more reactionary. In this case (Harvey), they have been able to pre-deploy assets before the full disaster strikes.”

As of Friday morning, more than 103,000 individuals and households had been approved for FEMA assistance worth more than $66.4 million, the agency said in a press release.

Of that amount, $9.5 million had been approved for housing assistance for victims, mainly for help with rent of up to $2,000 a month. Victims are also eligible for a one-time payout of $500 to cover “critical needs” such as diapers, infant formula, food and fuel.

FEMA makes emergency grants available as soon as a hurricane or other catastrophe is declared a disaster by the U.S. president. The agency can offer as much as $30,000 per household, but most payments are much smaller.

The average payout to Hurricane Katrina victims was $7,114. For Sandy it was $8,016. Those sums might seem modest for victims who have lost everything. But the aid is intended to be temporary, said Rafael Lemaitre, former public affairs director for FEMA until January 2017.

The grants “are not designed to make lives whole again. It’s a life vest. It is designed to help the most vulnerable get back on their feet,” he said.

Lemaitre said one of the big changes since Katrina is that FEMA is more pro-active in getting help to people faster. Victims can sign up online via FEMA’s new app. The agency also sends teams out into shelters to register people on the spot.

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