Top FEMA Tips for Practitioners After a Disaster

/ Blog Post

Photo of Hannah Dyal
Photo of Hannah Dyal

By Hannah Dyal, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow who served in the Disaster Resilience Program. Hannah currently works as a staff attorney on the disaster team at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

Learning how to handle FEMA appeals after a disaster is often overwhelming and confusing. Here are some top tips for legal practitioners to better assist clients recovering from a disaster.

Develop relationships with community partners

Having relationships with the community partners in your area is vital to connect with the people who most need legal assistance. Local community partners have strong community ties and may even engage in post-disaster door-to-door canvassing to find out who needs aid. They can refer disaster survivors with urgent legal needs to you directly, if they know who you are and what you do. Being familiar with what community partners do, and training them on what your organization does, can also make finding survivors who need legal assistance much less time consuming.

Keep an eye on deadlines but don’t let them defeat an appeal

Generally, deadlines for FEMA appeals are 60 days from the date on the decision letter—NOT the date a survivor received the letter. If you cannot get an appeal to FEMA before the deadline passes, don’t just assume the survivor cannot get FEMA assistance; send the appeal anyway. FEMA is usually flexible with their deadlines and regularly consider late appeals. Keep in mind that FEMA enforces their deadlines for applications for assistance much more strictly than their deadlines for appeals of eligibility decisions.

Learn the difference between ONA vs. FEMA

FEMA allows disaster declared jurisdictions to elect to administer the Other Needs Assistance (ONA) portions of the Individual and Households Program. ONA is essentially all non-housing assistance such as personal property, transportation assistance, and funeral assistance etc. You can find a full list of ONA here.  Once a disaster declaration has been made, you should find out whether your state has elected to administer ONA, and if so, what part of the state government is handling it. You can reach out to the FEMA Regional Administrator for your area to learn how ONA is being administered for your disaster. FEMA still has significant control over the ONA award amounts and eligibility determinations, but the state government may allow for additional paths of appeal outside of FEMA.

Don’t give up!

FEMA appeals require creativity and persistence. Advocates cannot speak directly to the caseworker making eligibility determinations. Instead, you have to communicate with a general helpline worker, who may be uninformed on legal issues specific to your state. Use your best judgement to decide when to push back against FEMA, or when to provide FEMA with the information they are asking for, even if you think they already have it or shouldn’t need it.

Prepare your community

Before a disaster, prepare your community for potential disasters through outreach and community education. If you practice in a disaster-prone area, you can conduct trainings specific to FEMA or other disaster benefits. If your community is not often impacted by disasters, it may be more helpful to carry out trainings on general landlord/tenant law, title clearing, or insurance, and discuss how a disaster can impact these types of cases.

FEMA appeals may not seem like an issue that requires legal advocacy, but survivors who most need FEMA assistance, such as elderly individuals, are the ones who need the most help navigating the appeals process. Your legal advocacy will bring more FEMA money to individual disaster survivors and therefore to the entire community, making your community more resilient to disasters.

For more information on FEMA assistance types and the appeals and application process, visit the FEMA Individual Assistance Program and Policy Guide.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is committed to ensuring that all disaster survivors have an equitable recovery and are resilient for the future. For more information about the program, please visit here.

The Disaster Resilience Program is funded by the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, California Community Foundation Wildfire Relief Fund, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and individual contributions. 

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow