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Simplifying Disaster Assistance for Survivors

In 2023, there were a record-setting 28 billion-dollar natural disasters in the U.S., totaling $93 billion in damages. As the costs of weather and climate events increase, so too does reliance on federal programs to direct assistance to survivors and communities in need. However, accessing this assistance is a challenge for both individuals and public officials because the system for delivering federal aid is complex.

After seeking feedback from disasters survivors and the public, FEMA recently announced a slate of reforms to improve access to its Individual Assistance (IA) program. While the changes are a positive step forward, further action is needed to simplify the provision of disaster aid across programs and agencies. This blog outlines some of the remaining challenges survivors and state, local, Tribal, and territorial (SLTT) officials face when applying for federal disaster assistance and explores how a universal application could improve the process.

Complex and redundant disaster assistance processes burden survivors.

Disaster survivors often deal with trauma associated with lost loved ones and damaged or destroyed homes and are forced to find temporary housing and living situations for their families in the wake of a disaster. Amidst this turmoil and chaos, they also must assess damages, file insurance claims, and navigate federal assistance programs to access resources to address housing and property damage and other disaster-related costs.

FEMA’s Individual Assistance and the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) Disaster Loan Program are the primary sources of direct federal assistance to survivors in the short term after a disaster. FEMA and SBA applications demand a lot of work from disaster survivors, requiring them to compile comprehensive personal information and details about the extent of damage. For example, the SBA application asks for a catalogue of household debt owed and valuation of assets, such as a valuation of property and residences prior to the disaster as well as the value of all bank and retirement accounts.

FEMA and SBA’s applications are also frequently duplicative. A BPC review of the applications found 16 questions on the FEMA disaster assistance application that are at least somewhat duplicative of questions on the SBA Disaster Home/Sole Proprietor Loan application, with some of those questions including multiple components. For example, both applications ask whether survivors have home insurance, and if so, to provide additional information about the type of policy and the insurance provider. In some cases, FEMA and SBA ask related questions but request different levels of detail, so applicants cannot simply copy answers, as shown in the insurance-related questions below.

In the past, survivors often needed to apply for FEMA assistance, then apply for SBA loans, and wait for the SBA loans to be denied before they could be eligible for further assistance. This process confused many survivors: they were unsure whether they would be required to accept a loan if approved, worried that a loan denial would damage their credit score, and puzzled as to why they should fill out an SBA application if they are not involved in a small business. One of the most important changes FEMA announced was eliminating the requirement that survivors apply for SBA loans before being considered for further direct assistance, while allowing survivors to apply for FEMA assistance and SBA loans at the same time.

FEMA also announced that its disaster assistance application website,, would be enhanced with individualized information collection, only asking survivors questions about their specific circumstances, to further reduce the burden of applying for assistance. Still, without further changes to the application process, survivors seeking both FEMA assistance and SBA loans will continue to fill out multiple applications with redundant questions.

Working with uncoordinated federal agencies is a challenge for SLTT governments.

FEMA, SBA, and other agencies’ separate data intake processes also cause inefficiencies in administering assistance. Restrictions on information-sharing across agencies create extra work for SLTT governments leading disaster recovery efforts because they have to acquire data from multiple different agencies.[i] For example, SLTT entities assessing and preventing duplication of benefits, which is prohibited by the Stafford Act, need to be able to access benefit data that is siloed in separate agencies—but SLTTs often have limited capacity, and requiring officials to search and cross-reference multiple databases can slow the distribution of aid.

Accessing data from multiple agencies is a burden for SLTT governments because they have a broader array of federal disaster assistance grant programs to apply to than individuals or households. As the graph below shows, there are dozens of disaster relief programs across federal agencies—most of which direct funding to SLTTs. Identifying and applying to a patchwork of assistance programs with multiple applications puts a strain on public officials with limited staff capacity or limited experience in navigating disaster assistance programs.

A universal application for disaster assistance would streamline the process and speed up recoveries.

Many advocates have proposed creating a unified baseline application for disaster survivors seeking assistance with data that could be stored in a centralized hub. Such a portal could help both individual survivors as well as SLTT governments identify the programs they are eligible for and input the relevant information for those applications.

For individual disaster survivors, a single application process would reduce the number of questions they need to answer and cut down on required documentation. A common application portal would facilitate faster and easier data-sharing, streamlining the administration of programs for both the recipients and federal agencies. It could also encourage federal agencies to align their process timeframes and application requirements to the extent possible.

Two bipartisan bills introduced in the 118th Congress would establish a common disaster assistance application along these lines: the Disaster Assistance Simplification Act (S. 1528) and the Disaster Survivors Fairness Act (H.R. 1796). Both pieces of legislation direct FEMA to establish a web-based unified intake process and system for applicants for disaster assistance. The two bills would also remove obstacles to interagency data-sharing to help SLTTs more efficiently assess duplication of benefits and administer disaster relief programs.


While a single application and unified data hub would be a major step towards simplifying and enhancing federal disaster assistance, it would not resolve all the complexities plaguing federal disaster recovery, nor would integrating these disparate systems be painless. Because they involve multiple federal agencies, state and local governments, as well as the public and private sectors, disaster recovery efforts have many layers and require many levels of coordination. Building on FEMA’s recent changes, federal policymakers should continue to seek meaningful reforms to simplify efforts, cut down redundancies, and speed up the delivery of aid.


[i] Michelle Stinnett, Recovery and Resiliency Division Manager for Boulder County Colorado, provided insights on the challenges for SLTTs for this blog.


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