ICYMI: At Hearing, Warren Calls on FEMA to Fix Inequities in Disaster Management Programs
Warren Highlights the Need for Her FEMA Equity Act
“For too long, frontline communities have been disproportionately impacted by the devastating effects of natural disasters. We need to work to address that injustice and ensure federal programs are actually fixing the disparity, not making it worse by forcing people to pay more than their fair share or limiting relief to those who need it most.”
Washington, D.C. – At a hearing of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) highlighted the need for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fix inequities and injustices in disaster management programs.
Senator Warren called attention to the fact that due to historical discrimination, people of color are more likely to live in homes and communities that are less resilient to natural disasters such as floods. A recent investigative report shows, however, that FEMA has spent disproportionate amounts of money elevating homes in communities that are wealthy or overwhelmingly white to protect them from flooding, while investments in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have been limited.
Given these concerns, Senator Warren stressed the importance of her FEMA Equity Act, legislation that would ensure greater equity in disaster assistance programs, including by improving data collection to measure disparate outcomes and participation barriers and requiring equity criteria to be applied to policies and programs.
Transcript: Reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program: Improving Community Resilience
U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Tuesday, May 2, 2023
Senator Elizabeth Warren: Over the last 25 years, 99% of U.S. counties experienced at least one flooding event. In other words, flooding events are nearly universal. But people of color get hit harder due to aging infrastructure, structurally unsound homes, and federal policies like redlining that segregated communities of color and kept them closer to floodplains.
Yet low-income neighborhoods and communities of color receive limited investments in flood protection. Reports show that FEMA disproportionately invests in protecting homes in white and wealthy communities from floods, reducing insurance costs and boosting property values for those homeowners.
Last year, FEMA Associate Administrator for Resilience, David Maurstad said that FEMA does not track the race or ethnicity of people who receive aid, saying, and I quote him here, “Because we don’t collect it, we don’t discriminate against individuals.” But just because there's not intentional discrimination does not mean that aid is distributed equitably.
Ms. Hernandez, you're an expert on community development data and equity. Can you just describe how the failure to collect key demographic data can exacerbate inequity in FEMA programs?
Patty Hernandez, Executive Director, Headwaters Economics: Thank you Senator Warren for the question. So yes, absolutely. Without accurate data, it is very hard to reach people with services and to direct those services to the people that need them most. So I couldn't agree more.
I had a colleague yesterday, just looking at some numbers for who lives in the highest flood risk places in this country, and she was just telling me that there is a much higher share of people in poverty, families in poverty, there is a higher share of people that are older than 65 living in the most high risk places in this country, and higher share of people who self-identify as people of color and Hispanic.
So certainly there is, there are a lot of folks counting on both disaster mitigation and response services in the high flood risk areas. And so absolutely, data is needed. I would say that that is true for FEMA, and also for local governments and community leaders who are trying to make their case and advocate for resources.
Senator Warren: Okay. All right. So we start out structurally, that there are more people of color, there are more poor people, in areas that are prone to flood, but we can't track what's happening if we don't collect the data. Is that, is that a fair sentence about it?
Ms. Hernandez: Yes.
Senator Warren: Okay, so a year and a half ago, FEMA introduced Risk Rating 2.0, which is a new risk rating methodology for the National Flood Insurance Program. And the update includes more variables, data sets, models, on how the Flood Insurance Program decides how much insurance for each individual house should cost, all with the aim of delivering more equitable pricing for policyholders.
And I hope that FEMA delivers on these important goals. But we also need more far reaching reforms. And that is why last year, Congressman Bennie Thompson and I introduced the FEMA Equity Act to ensure greater equity in disaster assistance programs, including by improving data collection to measure disparate outcomes and participation barriers, and requiring equity criteria be applied to policies and programs.
Now, Ms. Fernandez, from your experience, would the provisions in our bill have helped make FEMA programs like the National Flood Insurance Program more equitable, so they reach all communities that are in need of disaster assistance?
Ms. Hernandez: Thank you, Senator, for the question. So I'm not prepared to speak to any specific legislation. But provisions like those are absolutely helpful for encouraging and supporting FEMA and reaching the people who are most impacted by disasters, and for advancing mitigation as well.
Senator Warren: You know, for too long, frontline communities have been disproportionately impacted by the devastating effects of natural disasters. We need to work to address that injustice and to ensure that federal programs are actually fixing the disparity, not making it worse by forcing people to pay more than their fair share, or by limiting relief to the people who need it most.
The Biden administration has made important reforms to address inequities in federal disaster management programs. But there is more to be done, both to codify and to build on these changes, and I will continue to fight for them. Thank you. Thank you Madam Chair.
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