The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is providing federal disaster assistance to Rio Grande Valley residents following the heavy rain and flooding the region experienced this past June. President Trump issued the federal disaster declaration on July 6, and impacted residents now have sixty days to submit claims for assistance. Disaster recovery centers are open in the towns of Weslaco, Mission, and McAllen. Texas Housers, an NLIHC state partner, is joining with other housing advocates to monitor the disaster recovery assistance process to ensure that low income families are not neglected, as was the case in eastern Texas and Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Harvey and Maria.
FEMA has a history of responding to disasters in the region in a manner that neglects lower income communities of color. Low income renters in the Rio Grande Valley recently won a legal case against FEMA over the practice of denying assistance to owners of properties suffering from “deferred maintenance” in the aftermath of Hurricane Dolly in 2008. FEMA applied such denials against applicants with properties in poor condition prior to the storm. Many of the region’s residents lack resources to ensure their homes are adequately maintained, and these standards were not communicated to applicants. A federal judge ruled that FEMA violated the law by not properly conveying these standards to applicants and that the policy itself was exclusionary towards low income residents.
Advocates have also expressed concerns about the cultural and language competency of agency officials assisting in the rollout of the disaster response. Many of the region’s residents are primarily Spanish-speaking and have reported that the agents assisting with recovery efforts largely speak only English. Federal, state, and local officials have sent letters to FEMA requesting that more Spanish-speaking agents be sent to the region to help with recovery.
“We are watching closely to ensure that FEMA is providing recovery assistance in an equitable manner,” said Josue Ramirez, Rio Grande Valley co-director at Texas Housers. “Low income people face the greatest disruption after weather disasters in Rio Grande Valley, and federal assistance must ensure they have a chance to recover what they lost.”
For more information about efforts to pursue equitable disaster recovery in the Rio Grande Valley, contact Christina Rosales at Texas Housers at: [email protected]