SALEM, Ore. (AP) — More than 24,000 Oregonians applied for federal disaster assistance after the catastrophic 2020 wildfires and about 57% of them were denied.
Jefferson Public Radio reports that nearly 14,000 Oregonians have been denied aid, according to data provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Oregon’s high rates of denial are on par with previous natural disasters. FEMA denied about 60% of Puerto Rican disaster assistance applicants after Hurricane Maria. A study by Texas Hausers, a housing nonprofit, found that FEMA denied a quarter of disaster applicants after Hurricane Harvey hit there.
Many of the people who have been denied assistance are low-income. Among Hurricane Harvey applicants, people whose annual incomes were below $15,000 had a 46% denial rate. People with annual incomes exceeding $70,000 had a 10% denial rate.
Following Oregon’s wildfires, FEMA issued press releases encouraging people to appeal. They said the appeals process could be as simple as correcting a typo or providing a missing document.
OPB reports that isaster victim advocates and legal aid attorneys say appealing FEMA’s denials is anything but simple; and that by denying so many people the first time, the agency is using a complex bureaucratic process to weed out people who likely need the most help.
“People who’ve been affected by a disaster are dealing with trauma,” said attorney Tracy Figueroa with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “They’re trying to pull the documents together, and just hearing “no” from one entity or another can shut things down. They don’t know how to navigate the bureaucracy. They’re just done.”
FEMA’s denial letters aren’t always clear about how applicants can amend their applications.
For example, several Oregon applicants said they were denied assistance because they have homeowner’s insurance; a common misunderstanding, since FEMA often lists homeowners insurance as a reason for denial.
Rather, FEMA can help people with homeowners insurance, but those applicants need to follow a few other steps first.
This story has been updated to correct the attribution to Jefferson Public Radio instead of Oregon Public Broadcasting.