Pro Bono Net is pleased to announce an important update to an interactive, guided interview that allows disaster survivors to generate an appeal letter if they have been denied assistance by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or would like to appeal the amount awarded by the agency. The guided interview, powered by Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive program, is available at FEMAAppeals.org. Since the 2017 major disasters, the interview has been used nearly 9,000 times by individuals affected by major disasters in the United States such as hurricanes, floods and wildfires.
Pro Bono Net, in partnership with the City Bar Justice Center, initially created the tool in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy for use by people impacted by disasters who cannot afford a lawyer. In 2017, Weil, Gotshal & Manges updated the interview for people affected by Hurricanes María, Irma, Harvey, and the California wildfires. This year, Pro Bono Net worked with Disability Rights Texas to incorporate questions that address the needs of survivors with disabilities. Answers to the questions in the interactive interview are input into a form letter that a survivor can save to their computer and print out for submission to FEMA as an appeal. Users can also email the letter to a third party, such as an attorney, for review.
Disability Rights Texas (DRTx) is the Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agency for the state of Texas. DRTx works to ensure that Texans’ with disabilities have equitable opportunities that are free from discriminatory barriers across all societal domains and their individual rights and liberties are upheld. DRTx’s priorities now include disaster planning and recovery and in response to Hurricane Harvey had dedicated personnel to assist with legal needs.
In working the response to Hurricane Harvey, DRTx’s immediate caseloads were occupied with FEMA denials and FEMA appeals. Navigating FEMA’s process is complex and confusing and for disaster survivors with disabilities, meaningful access was denied, as FEMA lacked a public facing reasonable accommodation process to ensure an equitable opportunity to participate in and benefit from FEMA’s programs. A failure to address and engage with disaster survivors with disabilities to determine specific needs, was the most substantial barrier the disability community faced.
Sometimes clients were denied effective communication, as accommodations as obvious as an interpretation in a different language either for the application itself or for an inspection were not provided. Sometimes clients needed continued assistance throughout FEMA’s process to address mental health needs, or maybe they required, as a reasonable accommodation, a modification to a specific policy that was creating a discriminatory barrier, yet FEMA lacked a means to request and sustain a reasonable accommodation for a disaster survivor with a disability.
The FEMA appeals interview will allow, as a pro se tool, for disaster survivors with disabilities to explicitly address their lack of meaningful access to FEMA’s programs based on FEMA’s failure to provide a reasonable accommodation. A FEMA denial of an accommodation denies an equitable opportunity for disaster survivors to access FEMA’s programs. Sometimes the legal aid response in disasters can be limited due to the overwhelming need. This tool affords an independent resource for advocacy. Survivors impacted by a major disaster and that have applied to FEMA can use the tool to generate an appeal letter. The tool is also inclusive of the barriers the disability community may face in recovery.
In September 2021, FEMA updated its disaster assistance application.
Specifically, question number 24 on the application now allows for an individual to request a specific reasonable accommodation. This option is new and FEMA has not released specific guidance on how the reasonable accommodation process will work. The FEMA appeal interactive interview can be a critical tool to assist in navigating these new procedures.
We hope this updated tool is helpful to survivors in communities recovering from the impact of Hurricane Ida and other climate-driven disasters such as the wildfires in California.
Pro Bono Net thanks Stephanie Duke, Attorney and Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Fellow at Disability Rights Texas, for her continued advocacy on behalf of disaster survivors with disabilities and her work on these updates. Pro Bono Net also thanks Capstone Practice Systems for its generous support in making updates to the interview.
To access the interview, you can visit www.FEMAAppeals.org. To learn more about Disability Rights Texas, visit https://www.disabilityrightstx.org/en/home/. To learn more about Pro Bono Net’s disaster recovery efforts, visit https://www.probono.net/our-work/initiatives/disaster/. For any questions or comments about the program, please contact Pro Bono Net’s Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager, Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz at firstname.lastname@example.org.