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Questions Persist Over How FEMA Decides Who Gets Help

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Vicky Nguyen sets out items from her home in Baytown, outside Houston, to dry. Nguyen was stranded on the second floor of her house for five days after Hurricane Harvey.

Right now, an army of FEMA home inspectors is working its way through parts of Texas decimated by Hurricane Harvey. The inspectors are recording information that will help the government decide who gets disaster aid and how much. But the way that money is distributed has come under fire.

Now, as in previous disasters, some storm victims are demanding more transparency.

‘You Have To Be Patient’

“This is a hard and arduous process and we do tell everyone this,” FEMA spokesperson Rita Egan said a few weeks ago at a shelter in Austin set up for Hurricane Harvey evacuees. “You have to be patient with yourself and with the process.”

Egan was walking reporters though the steps of applying for FEMA aid. It begins with filing out a form online or at a disaster resource center.

You give information about your property and personal condition. If everything goes well, this first step will bring a FEMA inspector to your home who will try to confirm the damages, Egan said.

Eventually, you'll get word from FEMA outlining what aid you qualify for. Of course, things don’t always work out that way.

“Yeah, everything’s on hold. It’s just ridiculous,” Margaret Shuler said by cellphone from her hometown of Alvin. “I don’t know where to turn now.”

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT
FEMA representatives help Harvey evacuees at the MetCenter shelter in Southeast Austin earlier this month.

After the flooding, Shuler said, the city put a “red tag” on her house, indicating that it was uninhabitable. Because of that red tag, FEMA inspectors won’t enter it to assess damage the flood caused, like wet, molding sheetrock.

“All the sheetrock has to come out now because of black mold, and [FEMA] won’t go in,” Shuler said. “So I’m at a standstill.”

Shuler’s dilemma: She needs FEMA’s help to fix flood damage, but she also needs to spend money she doesn’t have to fix other problems first. Some of the house's problems aren't related to the flood.

“My parents had that house for 80 years,” she said, stifling back a sob.

Shuler said she can’t afford to be patient. As more time goes by without an inspection, she worries she’ll lose the house completely.

‘Secret Rules’

Jerry Wesevich, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said he’s heard from many storm victims, like Shuler, who feel at the mercy of rules they don’t really understand.  

Back in 2008, the nonprofit sued FEMA for how it handled disaster relief after Hurricane Dolly. TRLA charged that poorly constructed homes in the impoverished colonias of South Texas were denied assistance because of a secret “deferred maintenance” rule. Basically, it meant that if a home was in bad shape before the storm, it was less likely to get federal help.

The nonprofit claimed victory in that lawsuit.

“The court forbid the agency from using the deferred maintenance rule that we discovered,” Wesevich said. “The problem with that is it doesn’t prevent [FEMA] from using other secret rules.”

That's exactly what he thinks the agency did again during storms in 2015 and 2016, and is doing post-Harvey.

“FEMA publishes a document after every disaster that’s called the IHP inspection guidelines. And it gives that document to all the inspectors. But it doesn’t give it to the public. Why not?” Wesevich said. “The inspection is the critical event that determines what assistance is going to be made available to people.”

Proprietary, Not Secret

FEMA denies that it employs any secret rules when arriving at disaster aid decisions.

“No, the inspectors are just looking at the damage to your home and that’s all they’re evaluating," said FEMA spokesperson Leo Skinner. "They don’t determine how much money you get.”

When asked about the IHP guidelines, he said he would see if he could “get a hold of that.”

The inspection guidelines do (or at least did) exist, according to a bunch of websites. WSP USA Inspection Services, a FEMA contractor that serves as a kind of temp agency for inspectors, provides a link to the guidelines here, but the page requires a password to access.

This YouTube video purports to show the guidelines as well, and Wesevich also provided KUT with a document he calls a “template” for inspection guidelines.

In a follow-up email, Skinner reiterated that there were no “secret rules.” But he didn’t send the guidelines. Instead, he pasted some information from WSP USA, listing some of the duties of contracted FEMA home inspectors.

One bullet point says inspectors can’t enter buildings deemed unsafe. That seemed to explain Shuler’s problem in Alvin.

Another bullet point said inspectors need to “address all required data fields within the FEMA software.”

When KUT asked to access the software, Skinner said it was “proprietary” and referred us to “FEMA Headquarters.”

Wesevich said inspectors enter data into their tablets and the software applies the rules to determine eligibility for aid.

"They basically admit that they're using secret rules even as they deny that they do," he said.

Wesevich said he has heard from even more Harvey victims unhappy with the results of their inspections. To answer their questions, he needs to find out the standards by which FEMA’s decisions are made.

“It doesn’t seem like it ought to be that difficult for the government to simply tell people how it decides benefits,” he said.

KUT checked back in with Shuler in Alvin this week and she said a church group plans to come help remove sheetrock and repair her house. FEMA told her to expect a new inspection visit on Sept. 30.

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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