May 05, 2022

Warren, Thompson, Introduce Legislation to Address Federal Disaster Response Inequities

Text of Bill (pdf)

Washington, D.C. – Today, in the midst of Hurricane Preparedness Week, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, introduced the Federal Emergency Management Advancement of Equity Act (or FEMA Equity Act) to address systemic inequities in the Federal government’s response to disasters and how it distributes assistance. Although low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be impacted by the devastating effects of disasters, there is a growing body of evidence and reporting that the assistance administered in the wake of these disasters does not ameliorate, but rather amplifies these impacts. 

Disaster assistance programs have been found to boost wealthy homeowners, while lower-income households sink further into poverty. Low-income homeowners that survive disasters are denied financial assistance almost twice as often as high-income homeowners.  It is also more difficult for low-income communities to access funding to appropriately prepare for disasters. Although the Biden Administration has made reforms and prioritized addressing inequities in Federal disaster management programs, more must be done.

The FEMA Equity Act would:  

  • Improve FEMA’s data collection systems to better identify inequities within its programs, including barriers to access and disparate outcomes. 
  • Direct FEMA to ensure equity is integrated into its programs.
  • Empower local governments impacted by natural disasters to request an emergency or major disaster declaration in certain circumstances when requests are not submitted by the State.
  • Authorize in law FEMA’s Equity Enterprise Steering Group and the Equity Advisor position, both established by the Biden Administration, to bolster equity reforms within FEMA.
  • Direct the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to examine the impact on underserved communities of FEMA’s requirements for authorizing Federal assistance. 

“For too long, frontline communities have been disproportionately impacted by the devastating effects of natural disasters, and this injustice is exacerbated by the distribution of relief,” said Senator Warren. “We must work towards achieving greater equity in FEMA’s disaster response, and my bill with Chairman Thompson would do just that.”

“Whether you receive assistance after a disaster shouldn’t depend on your zip code or background,” said Chairman Thompson. “For decades, we have seen low-income communities and communities of color left behind after a disaster strikes. It’s past time that the Federal government – and particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency – makes disaster assistance equity a real priority to reduce barriers to recovery.  While I am glad that the Biden Administration has made many positive changes to the Federal government’s disaster management programs, we must make these changes permanent and expand on these efforts. I thank Senator Warren for working with me for years on this issue, and I hope my colleagues will consider this legislation as soon as possible.”

This legislation is cosponsored by Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

Statements of endorsement for the FEMA Equity Act:

“For too long, the federal government has taken a ‘top down’ approach to Emergency Management that has proven to be ineffective and inequitable for underserved communities across the country.  The Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management applauds the creation of the FEMA Equity Act and the positive impact it will have on vulnerable, marginalized communities that suffer disproportionately after a disaster.  When equity is prioritized, all communities win.” Chauncia Willis, CEO and Founder, Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. 

“The FEMA Equity Act would ensure access to vital disaster recovery programs for underserved and disadvantaged communities, and empower counties to request federal disaster declarations. We thank Chairman Thompson and Senator Warren for introducing this legislation and call on Congress to swiftly pass the bill,” Matthew Chase, Director, National Association of Counties Executive. 

“A growing body of research documents what Black communities know all too well in times of disaster: you cannot count on FEMA. After Hurricane Katrina, Black neighborhoods in New Orleans, such as the Lower Ninth Ward and neighborhoods in New Orleans East, have yet to fully recover while white neighborhoods that were not damaged by the storm received disaster recovery funds. For many communities harmed by systemic racism and vulnerable to the climate crisis, the FEMA Equity Act would end the practice that all too often either ignores us or denies us basic humanitarian assistance. I thank Congressman Bennie Thompson and Senator Elizabeth Warren for taking this action to reform FEMA,” Dr. Beverly Wright, Executive Director, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.

“EEECHO serves vulnerable communities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, who have been disproportionately impacted by climate change events such as Hurricane Katrina. We have experienced FEMA’s failures and dismal track record firsthand and support the much-needed reforms in the FEMA Equity Act,” Ruth Story, Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate & Health Organization (EEECHO).

“The FEMA Equity Act is desperately needed today to correct policies and practices that systematically left the most vulnerable and marginalized communities behind— neighborhoods inhabited largely by low income families and people of color. Even FEMA’s own 2020 National Advisory Council report revealed the agency is not reaching populations of greatest need. This must end—and will end with the passage of the FEMA Equity Act,” Dr. Robert Bullard, The Bullard Center for Environmental & Climate Justice, Texas Southern University.

“Research has repeatedly documented the inequities in post-disaster aid and the role this inequality has in perpetuating wealth gaps over time. The FEMA Equity Act is a first step towards a more equitable federal response to disasters. This Act will begin to provide the data and resources needed to reform our current processes and ensure federal aid is accessible to all who are devastated by disasters,” Dr. Junia Howell, University of Illinois Chicago.

“The FEMA Equity Act has my unambiguous support. Blacks and other people of color have long shouldered the disproportionate burdens of flooding and environmental harms that accompany hurricanes and severe weather events. The concurrency of risk recognition and aggressive responses reflected in the FEMA Equity Act are essential to minimizing these impacts to produce more equitable and remediable outcomes,” Dr. Joan Marshall Wesley, Jackson State University.

“Domestic disasters disproportionately affect underserved communities in the United States. Post-disaster federal assistance to communities, families, and individuals has failed to fully address these inequities and has led to disparate post-disaster outcomes across race and socioeconomic groups. The FEMA Equity Act would support data collection, data analysis, and criteria development to both identify and address inequities in funding - and thus, mitigate inequities in recovery. As the US continues to experience larger and more frequent disasters than ever before, it is imperative to pass the FEMA Equity Act to help ensure justice in disaster relief,” Dr. Elizabeth Albright, Duke University.