This story was co-published with Southerly.
When President Joe Biden visited southeast Louisiana on September 3, the week after Hurricane Ida hit, he suggested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would broadly provide Ida survivors with financial support.
“So far, we have provided, with the governor’s help as well, $100 million in critical assistance directly to people in Louisiana by putting $500 in their bank accounts once they’ve contacted us,” Biden said. He urged Louisiana residents to apply for this and other forms of FEMA aid “no matter who you are, if you live in an affected area.”
After Ida, FEMA rolled out its Critical Needs Assistance program, offering a one-time $500 payment per household intended to cover food, water, prescriptions, medical supplies and other life-saving and life-sustaining items, agency spokesperson Robert Howard told The Lens and Southerly in an email.
The financial need following the hurricane is massive. In a September 17 letter to Louisiana’s Congressional delegation appealing for more federal disaster aid for the state, Gov. John Bel Edwards outlined an estimate of the damage Ida brought. “It is a fairly safe assumption that unmet housing needs for Ida will be well over $2.5 billion based on historical damages for similar events,” he wrote.
Edwards also said that FEMA currently estimates it will have over 803,000 registrants for assistance for Ida — nearly three times the number of registrations received for last year’s Hurricanes Laura, Delta, and Zeta combined. On Tuesday, Howard told The Lens and Southerly that to date, FEMA has provided $212.7 million in Critical Needs Assistance to Hurricane Ida survivors in Louisiana
Officials, both federal and local, encouraged residents to apply for the $500, initially giving the impression that eligibility for the assistance was sweeping, and that anyone who resides in the 25 parishes under the federal disaster declaration could qualify. But as the application deadline nears on Wednesday, Sept. 22, applicants’ experiences have varied widely, leaving many to wonder what actually makes someone eligible for the aid.
Brandy Giles of Gretna, lives in the affected area, and believed she would be eligible for the aid. She applied for FEMA aid a few days after the storm, but has yet to get a firm response back from the agency.
On one of many calls she made seeking the status of her application, Giles got frustrated. “We definitely need the Critical Needs Assistance,” she recalled telling the FEMA employee. “We don’t have any food. The traffic lights are still out. Our power just came back on, but the more and more that it’scontinued to rain, the power lines were low, so the power was flickering in and out.”
Messaging from the federal government on who qualifies for Ida-related aid has been inconsistent. As The Lens and Southerly previously reported, FEMA officials initially said that only storm damage would qualify people for evacuation assistance. The agency then changed course, saying that extended power outages in the region were serious enough to warrant the aid. But even then, some residents reported trouble qualifying.
Similarly, on Sept. 2, one day before Biden’s visit to Louisiana, a press briefing from the White House noted that the $500 Critical Needs Assistance was specifically intended for storm survivors who cannot live in their homes, and “have immediate or critical needs because they are displaced.”
Howard, the FEMA spokesperson, said in an email that “individuals and households who have immediate or critical needs because they are displaced from their primary dwelling may be eligible for the Critical Needs Assistance (CNA) program,” but The Lens and Southerly have spoken to applicants who never evacuated and still received the assistance.
“I just don’t really know what else to do,” said Giles. “Why am I going through this whole process, and still not having any success?”
‘I’m just kind of in limbo’
Giles evacuated ahead of the storm with her mother and 12-year-old daughter and went to Orlando for a week. While they were away, Giles and her mother both applied for FEMA assistance, hoping to get funding to help pay for food, gas, Giles’ daughter’s asthma medication, and to cover over $700 in hotel bills.
The three returned to their apartment in Gretna — which had lost a few shingles but sustained little damage otherwise — on Labor Day, so Giles could report back to work at a nonprofit serving trauma survivors. She estimated that she called the FEMA helpline ten times trying to assess the status of her application, until one employee finally told her the process was likely stalled because Giles and her mother share an address, and only one person per household can receive benefits. Giles faxed her hotel receipts to FEMA, thinking that might solve the issue, since they were all in her name.
Soon, a FEMA inspector contacted Giles and came to the apartment, where she told Giles she could not go inside because of COVID. The inspector also told Giles she could not relay the status of her application.
Giles kept checking her FEMA status online. She saw that her documents had all loaded successfully. But then she got an email referring her to apply for a low-interest disaster loan from the Small Business Administration. More than two weeks after the storm, her status for Critical Needs Assistance — which appears under “Miscellaneous Items” on FEMA’s applicant portal — still said “pending.”
Giles was confused.
“Do I even qualify for the critical needs?” she said. “I’m just kind of in limbo like everybody else who didn’t receive the $500.”
Dimitri Celis told The Lens and Southerly that he was denied Critical Needs Assistance at first, despite living in Orleans Parish, one of the 25 parishes where residents qualify for FEMA aid.
A part-time manager at Reginelli’s and an AmeriCorps member at a food justice nonprofit, Celis remained at his Uptown apartment through the storm and subsequent blackout. He estimated that he lost about $200 worth of food from his refrigerator while power was out, spent another $70 on gas driving around town to get ice and other supplies, and lost about $1,200 in wages while the restaurant was closed.
He applied for FEMA aid online a few days after the storm, and called several days later to check on the status of his application. An employee told him that he should expect a call from FEMA about damage to his apartment to assess if he qualified for housing assistance.
“That’s not what I was interested in — just the $500 one to recoup for the food,” Celis recalled telling the FEMA employee. “She didn’t really have any knowledge on how that one worked,” he said.
A few days later, Celis received the housing call from a FEMA representative who told him an in-person inspection wasn’t possible because of COVID. A few hours after their conversation, Celis checked his status online, and saw he’d been denied for the housing assistance he hadn’t been seeking.
He called the helpline again, asking about Critical Needs Assistance, and learned that FEMA had denied his application. He pressed on, asking why exactly he had been denied.
“The lady from FEMA wouldn’t tell me specifically what it was on my application that disqualified me,” Celis said. But she told him that he could not appeal the decision, he said.
Celis began the process of applying for DSNAP, the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, hoping to get funding to help restock his fridge. But the staggered rollout of the program, which requires residents to apply and set up interviews on designated days according to the first letter of their last name, meant it could be weeks before he got the money.
Then, something surprising happened. Celis checked his bank account, and the $500 payment from FEMA had been deposited. He hadn’t sent in any new information to FEMA, he said, nor had he received any communication from FEMA telling him why his status had changed.
“It just kind of popped up out of nowhere,” he said. Celis ended up with just $166 for himself after splitting the $500 that FEMA gave his household with his two roommates.
Eligibility determined on ‘case by case basis’
Legal advocates aiding residents with FEMA applications are also trying to understand the apparent inconsistencies with how the aid has been administered. Last week, the volunteer group Emergency Legal Responders offered free legal information for people navigating disaster aid, and served about 90 people.
“We’ve also seen a lot of people being denied Critical Needs Assistance for no apparent reason,” said Evian Mugrabi, legal director of the group. “From the basic information that FEMA provided to the applicants, we couldn’t clarify why there was a denial issue.” Mugrabi added that if Emergency Legal Responders had the capacity and resources to call FEMA on behalf of applicants who were denied, they might have been able to get further clarification.
FEMA has attempted to quell rumors that the agency is giving everyone affected by Ida $500. But on its “Rumor Control” page, FEMA does not offer much more information about how someone qualifies for Critical Needs Assistance. The page reads, “To be eligible, survivors need to be residents of a parish that was included in the federal disaster declaration, and need to first apply for assistance at DisasterAssistance.gov, through the FEMA app, or by calling (800) 621-3362.”
FEMA spokesperson Robert Howard told The Lens and Southerly that “eligibility for Critical Needs Assistance is determined on a case by case basis.” He advised applicants who have not yet heard from FEMA to call the helpline at 800-621-3362 or visit DisasterAssistance.gov to get a status update. He did not say how long applicants with urgent needs should expect to wait to receive assistance after applying.
Howard also said that a denial of Critical Needs Assistance is final, and cannot be appealed.
The deadline for Critical Needs Assistance was originally September 12, but FEMA extended it to September 22 after members of the Louisiana Congressional delegation put pressure on the agency.
The deadline to apply for other forms of FEMA assistance is October 28.
Impacted by Hurricane Ida and have questions about federal assistance? We’d love to hear from you for future reporting. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.
This story has been updated to include the total amount of Critical Needs Assistance FEMA says it has given to Louisiana residents as of Sept. 21, 2021. The agency provided the information after publication.