Recent Disasters Reveal Racial Discrimination in FEMA Aid Process

by Vins
Published: Updated:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a branch in the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for responding to disasters that have an overwhelming impact on communities and providing services that will allow those affected to rebuild their lives. Yet, a survey of 1,600 Texans after Hurricane Harvey indicates that “storm victims could face barriers in securing federal aid—especially if they’re not white,” Sue Sturgis reported for Facing South.

The study, conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation, found that, after Hurricane Harvey, 52 percent of whites reported getting the aid they needed, while the figures fell to 46 percent of Hispanics and only 32 percent of blacks. Among those who sought federal assistance from FEMA or the Small Business Administration aid after Harvey, only 34 percent of all white residents said their applications were accepted; that figure fell to 28 percent for Hispanic residents and just 13 percent for black residents, according to the study.

Kathy Payton, executive director of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, told Facing South that these racial discrepancies are in large part due to victims’ residences not meeting FEMA standards. Because many low-income residents had no access to resources—such as home improvement loans, homebuyer education—in order to make critical repairs in the past, “they cannot qualify for most recovery programs today,” Payton said. In fact, applicants with incomes four times that of the poverty level were more likely to receive aid than those with lesser incomes.

The same FEMA requirements that amplified economic and racial disparities in Texas after Hurricane Harvey are known to have had similar impacts after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and FEMA aid denial was also a significant issue after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017.


Sue Sturgis, “Recent Disasters Reveal Racial Discrimination in FEMA Aid Process,” Facing South, September 24, 2018, (Republished by Truthout, October 24, 2018,

Student Researcher: Kelsey Ghiringhelli (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Suzel Bozada-Deas (Sonoma State University)