President Biden Visits Puerto Rico amid Increasing Confusion Regarding FEMA Application Process

President Biden traveled to Puerto Rico on October 3, landing in hard-hit Ponce to talk to disaster survivors and announce an influx of federal funding. The president also applauded the work being conducted in immediate response to Hurricane Fiona, which has brought widescale destruction to the island and caused 26 deaths so far.

FEMA has approved Critical Needs Assistance (CNA) funds, which will provide payments of $700 to eligible households to cover disaster-related expenses. While approval of funds is being welcomed by disaster survivors on the island, it has also injected a level of confusion into an already daunting disaster recovery application process. Because it is widely known that FEMA is providing $700 payments to eligible families, many are completing applications with only this immediate assistance in mind and thus leaving out important information that would allow access to greater amounts of assistance later in the recovery process. Legal aid organizations are beginning to report large numbers of people requesting legal assistance to amend applications and fight denials. FEMA applications cannot be amended until they have been denied by the agency, allowing disaster survivors to add information when they appeal the denial.

In addition, data on denials released by FEMA indicate that many continue to have difficulties proving ownership of their homes. Such difficulties led to hundreds of thousands of denials in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria five years ago. While FEMA had indicated that recent reforms implemented by the agency at the behest of the NLIHC-led Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition and other advocacy groups last year were successful in addressing the issue, the current data indicate that broader reforms are needed. While Hurricane Fiona survivors can file self-declarative statements attesting to ownership of their homes, the information on such statements is not included in Disaster Recovery Centers on the island or in FEMA fact sheets. Many of these issues would be directly addressed by the “Housing Survivors of Major Disasters Act,” a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress and sponsored by Representative Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

Explore NLIHC’s updated Hurricane Fiona page at: