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FEMA is simplifying the aid application process for disaster victims

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, is preparing a new and easier application process for disaster victims. The plan is to simplify a complicated system that prevents people from getting help. Kentucky Public Radio's Justin Hicks reports.

JUSTIN HICKS, BYLINE: Wesley Bryant lives in the close-knit Appalachian town of Jenkins, Ky.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SLOSHING)

HICKS: The 2022 floods that wrecked his home and forced him to flee with his family also washed away the bridge that connected their home to the main road.

WESLEY BRYANT: It's a little slick.

HICKS: Yeah, yeah.

So we have to hike down a steep, muddy path through the woods to get to his house.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

HICKS: Inside, the air is thick and musty. In several areas, the ceiling has thick black mold and holes of insulation dangling out. But everything else is pretty much how they left it when they fled, toys on the floor and all.

BRYANT: It breaks my soul, man. It hurts. It's home for me, and to not know if we're ever going to get back here...

HICKS: FEMA gave Bryant's family a trailer to live in for a while, while they applied for aid, and they gave him some money for the house. But he's still fighting to get assistance to replace everything inside.

BRYANT: We've been - it's kind of like we're lost in the shuffle.

HICKS: Bryant says he'll keep appealing until he gets money he believes he's eligible for. But for future disaster survivors, getting aid might be a little easier. FEMA announced they're going to take steps to simplify their application process. For Whitney Bailey, that change can't come soon enough.

WHITNEY BAILEY: It's insane, it's insane.

HICKS: Bailey is with a pro-bono law group in Kentucky called AppalReD. She's been helping dozens of clients navigate the FEMA application process, which often requires lots of appeals and paperwork. She shows me a folder so thick she can barely hold it in one hand.

BAILEY: This is one lady's. That's her entire FEMA case file (laughter).

HICKS: One coming change Bailey says she's most excited about? Removing a confusing requirement where, in many cases, disaster victims had to first apply for a Small Business Administration loan, regardless of whether or not they have a business. That loan had to get denied before they could get FEMA aid.

BAILEY: That's going to be huge. I have had so many clients get held up on the FEMA end because they need to go to SBA. You shouldn't have to go to a second agency.

HICKS: And there are about a dozen more changes, too, like simpler applications, expanding the type of repairs allowed and more flexibility for survivors to find an immediate place to live. Anne Bink heads up FEMA's disaster response and recovery office. She says some of the changes came after working with the 2022 flood victims in eastern Kentucky, for example, the new immediate cash assistance.

ANNE BINK: Some of the things we talked about during that disaster that we have adjusted, it's now automatic through the new rule. So $750 can get in the pocket of a survivor sooner and can help communities, give them that initial hope.

HICKS: While Kentucky flood victims may have inspired some of these changes, they won't necessarily benefit from them. FEMA says the new rules should take effect for new disasters starting March 22.

For NPR News, I'm Justin Hicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIA MARGARET'S "HINOKI WOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Justin Hicks