A growing body of research has documented that FEMA often helps white disaster victims and communities more than people and communities of color, even when the amounts of damage are the same. Leaders at FEMA have acknowledged the disparity and are tackling the complex issue of why these disparities exist and how they can be resolved. 

Research so far suggests that the scale of the problem is immense. A recent study of 5 million records found that the higher the percentage of Black residents living in a specific ZIP code, the less likely applications there were to result in an inspection and even among those who did, 11% of requests were denied without reason, while only 4% were denied in white neighborhoods without reason. Further, when homeowners in Black did have their application approved, they were awarded less money on average than applicants in white areas. This was also the case for counties with a significant Black, Hispanic or Native American population compared to counties with mostly white residents.

Racial disparities are also present in FEMA’s program that purchases and then demolishes damaged homes, as FEMA appears to disproportionately demolishing homes in communities of color.

The problem seems to stem from complex systemic factors, such as real estate values on properties in communities with many white residents vs communities with black residents and the complex nature of navigating the FEMA bureaucracy, which appears to favor people and communities that have more resources from the onset. Regardless, the impact of these disparities is long-lasting. For instance, white people in counties with significant disaster damage that received FEMA help experienced a 5-fold increase in personal wealth, while Black residents lost wealth, according to recent research. Further, the disparity is occurring as climate change triggers more frequent and destructive storms, wildfires and other natural disasters, putting marginalized communities at a further disadvantage, as they’re most vulnerable to damage and less able to recover from it. This reinforces the cycle of marginalization.

As racial justice is a key focus of the Biden Administration, the extensive documentation around these discrepancies presents a unique opportunity to tackle this problem at the federal level by seeking out ways to reform a core pillar of a system that appears to favor whites while further marginalizing communities of color in disaster relief.

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