Disaster Housing Recovery Updates – March 1, 2024

Several massive wildfires, including one that is now the largest in Texas history, rapidly expanded in the Texas Panhandle during the last week of February, prompting evacuations and power outages as it spread across nearly 800 square miles from the central Panhandle into neighboring Oklahoma. Fueled by strong winds, dry conditions, and high temperatures, the fire remains entirely uncontained, posing a significant threat to several small towns.

As of February 29, the 850,000-acre Smokehouse Creek Fire was only 3% contained. Additional ongoing fires include the 142,000-acre Windy Deuce Fire, currently 30% contained; the 30,000-acre Grapevine Creek Fire, currently 60% contained; and the 2,000-acre Reamer fire, currently 10% contained.  

Authorities have confirmed one fatality so far: an 83-year-old grandmother and substitute teacher in Stinnett who was found in her destroyed home. Local emergency management agencies have reported extensive property damage, with early reports indicating that 40 homes have been destroyed by fire outside Canadian, TX, and 40 to 50 homes have burned down in Fritch, TX. At least 13 homes have been destroyed by fire in Oklahoma. As of February 29, 5,300 households remained under evacuation orders. The American Red Cross has opened several emergency shelters in the Panhandle region to assist evacuees and displaced households. Governor Greg Abbott has declared a disaster in 60 counties and deployed over 600 responders to fight the fires. FEMA has approved Fire Management Assistance Grants for the largest fires in the area and has activated its Search and Rescue teams.

Texas typically sees its largest fires between January and May, as prairie grasses freeze dry over the winter, but the current dry conditions were exacerbated by wind gusts as high as 70 mph and abnormally high temperatures. A forecasted change in weather might offer some relief for firefighters after February 29, with a drop in temperatures and snow expected soon. 

The situation remains dire in affected areas, and officials are urging residents to be ready for sudden evacuation.

Congressional and National Updates

Ranking Member Maxine Waters (D-CA) of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services has introduced the “Wildfire Insurance Study Act” (H.R. 7462) in the House. The bill would direct the Government Accountability Office to study the impact of wildfire on insurance accessibility and cost. 

Representative Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) has introduced the “Flood Risk Transparency Act” (H.R. 7310) in the House. The bill would require HUD to disclose flood risks for single family properties the agency puts up for sale. 

Representative Jefferson Van Drew (R-NJ) has introduced the “NO CAP Act” (H.R. 7453) in the House. The bill would prohibit internet service providers from applying data caps and increasing prices for internet service in the aftermath of a federally declared disaster.  

Recent severe storms in the Northeast that resulted in extensive flooding and property damage serve as a stark reminder of the escalating impacts of climate change. Scientists warn that such events are becoming more frequent and intense due to rising sea levels and warmer ocean temperatures, exacerbating coastal erosion and flooding. As communities grapple with the aftermath of these disasters, there is a growing recognition of the urgent need to implement adaptation measures and make often difficult decisions about future development in vulnerable areas. From elevating structures to implementing stricter building codes, proactive steps are essential to enhance resilience and mitigate the risks posed by climate-induced extreme weather events.

The New York Times reports that disasters forced 2.5 million Americans from their homes in 2023, with Black and Latino populations, the economically disadvantaged, and those identifying as LGBTQ being disproportionately affected. A third of those displaced experienced food shortages, more than half encountered potential fraud, and over a third were displaced for longer than a month. The U.S. saw 28 disasters last year, each costing at least $1 billion, highlighting the increasing need to understand the human impact of climate-related disasters. A survey referenced in the article reveals hurricanes as the leading cause of displacement, with significant numbers of people also affected by floods and fires, particularly in states like Florida, Texas, California, and Louisiana. 

State and Local Updates


Following the devastating tornadoes that struck Arkansas on March 31, 2023, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders extended a vital program offering temporary emergency housing to victims, undertaking a swift and compassionate response to the crisis. The initiative, initially launched through an executive order that also eased certain highway load requirements for quicker FEMA housing unit deliveries, foregrounds the state’s commitment to ensuring affected residents have the support and shelter needed during recovery. The program's extension, allowing continued exemptions from specific highway regulations for commercial operators delivering housing units, underscores its balanced approach to providing urgent disaster relief while maintaining public safety.


FEMA issued a Major Disaster Declaration for San Diego County due to the impact of a storm on January 22 that forced more than 1,200 residents from their homes in the San Diego neighborhoods of Southcrest, Shelltown, Mountain View, and Encanto and the nearby cities of Lemon Grove, Spring Valley, La Mesa, and National City. Unfortunately, FEMA’s new streamlined guidelines will not go into effect until March 24 and will only apply to disasters that occur after that date.

San Diego County has launched a housing assistance initiative aimed at aiding those impacted by the storm. The program provides up to 30 days of temporary housing for individuals who have been displaced and who have been targeted through assessments and visits to local support centers. However, challenges persist as survivors navigate the program’s limitations.

The devastating floods that struck Southeast San Diego neighborhoods like Shelltown, Southcrest, and Mountain View highlighted a longstanding distrust between residents and city officials, who were criticized for not cleaning flood canals to prevent such a catastrophe. Community members are now facing challenges including displacement, exploitation by opportunists, and struggles finding stable housing. The floods not only caused physical damage but also exacerbated the homelessness crisis, putting additional strain on local resources. Residents are demanding accountability, an apology from city leaders, and the implementation of measures to prevent future disasters.


In Denver, Colorado, two legislative measures, HB24-1259 and HB24-1099, have been passed by the House Transportation, Housing & Local Government Committee to safeguard renters in the wake of disasters and eviction proceedings. HB24-1259 aims to cap rent increases post-disaster to prevent price gouging, allowing legal action against exploitative rent hikes, while HB24-1099 seeks to eliminate filing and service fees for renters during evictions, making it easier for them to contest evictions in court. These bills collectively aim to protect vulnerable renters from being priced out of their homes due to unforeseen disasters or the financial burden of legal fees.


Sunshine Health, a Centene Corporation subsidiary, has awarded grants to various Florida nonprofits through its Community Connections Grants program, focusing on storm relief and addressing social needs like food insecurity and housing. In response to Hurricane Idalia’s devastation, 17 organizations received up to $10,000 each for storm relief and preparedness. Additionally, $100,000 was distributed among 36 nonprofits to help with social and environmental challenges in underserved areas, with grants as high as $3,000. 


In response to the August 2023 wildfires, a group is urging Governor Josh Green of Hawaii to extend tenant protections against evictions by landlords seeking higher rents from subsidized housing aimed at displaced fire survivors. These protections, included in the governor’s Ninth Emergency Proclamation on Wildfires (expiring March 5), prohibit rental price increases and evictions, though exceptions exist for sales, renovations, or family housing needs. Despite these measures, some individuals are reportedly facing eviction and homelessness and struggling to find affordable housing amidst a market skewed by demand for accommodations for fire victims. FEMA has taken steps to prevent landlords from exploiting its Direct Lease program to raise rents by threatening to exclude violators. Maui County Council Member Gabe Johnson and others are calling for an extension of the eviction and rent-increase moratorium and the closure of loopholes that allow for such exploitative practices, highlighting the way Maui’s housing crisis has been exacerbated by the wildfires and the displacement of local families.

Traditional Hawaiian food is playing a key role in wildfire recovery for survivors. Locals are seeking a return to a more sustainable and self-sufficient lifestyle that honors their cultural heritage of food (meaʻai) and land (Āina). This reevaluation has led to community-driven initiatives to provide access to locally grown, traditional foods and to reconsider the role of agriculture and food in their recovery and future resilience. Amid ongoing struggles with food insecurity and the challenge of rebuilding, these efforts reflect a broader desire to reduce dependence on tourism and create a more sustainable and culturally connected future for Lahaina and its residents.


Governor Janet Mills has requested that President Joe Biden declare a major disaster for Maine’s eight coastal counties due to severe storm damage sustained on January 10 and 13, when storms caused damages to public infrastructure surpassing $70 million. Governor Mills is seeking federal assistance for public infrastructure repairs in counties including Washington, Hancock, Waldo, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Cumberland, and York. The Maine Emergency Management Agency highlighted the storms’ impacts on residents, mentioning flooded basements and damage to oil tanks, furnaces, roofs, and vehicles. The governor had previously secured a disaster declaration for 10 counties following a December storm. Deadlines for applying for assistance following the storm are approaching quickly. Additionally, Governor Mills has proposed $50 million in legislation for rebuilding and enhancing climate resilience, with a supplemental budget including $5 million for climate mitigation plans through Community Resilience Partnerships.


In the aftermath of severe storms and tornadoes that struck Michigan last summer, causing widespread damage and power outages, residents affected by the disaster in nine designated counties have been given the opportunity to apply for federal aid through FEMA. This assistance, made possible by a disaster declaration approved by President Biden, aims to support recovery efforts by providing home repair grants, rent aid, and low-interest loans for those with uninsured or under-insured losses. So far, FEMA has approved approximately $9 million in aid for over 3,600 households, with applications still open. The aid available also extends to cover various other expenses, such as medical and dental costs, childcare, and moving costs. Residents seeking aid can apply online, via the FEMA mobile app, or by phone, with the deadline for application submission approaching. This federal support marks the seventh instance in the last decade when Michigan has received disaster recovery assistance from the federal government.

North Dakota

President Joe Biden approved Governor Doug Burgum’s request for a major disaster declaration following a severe winter ice storm and straight-line winds on Christmas Day 2023, which resulted in $11.5 million in damages across North Dakota. The storm led to the destruction of over 2,000 power poles and the closure of major highways, affecting various infrastructures. The disaster declaration covers all 13 requested counties, including Barnes, Cass, Dickey, Grant, LaMoure, Logan, McIntosh, Ransom, Richland, Sargent, Steele, Stutsman, and Traill.


Amid rapidly spreading wildfires in the Texas Panhandle, the Pantex Plant, the primary facility for assembling and disassembling America’s nuclear arsenal, paused operations on Tuesday night. Located 30 miles east of Amarillo and operational since 1975, the plant announced a temporary shutdown due to the nearby uncontained fire.