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FEMA Announces Significant Changes to Disaster Assistance Program

For businesses in the pet care services industry, having an emergency action plan in place is crucial for ensuring the safety of staff members and animals in the event of a natural disaster or other crisis. While it may be difficult to fully prepare for the consequences that a disaster could have on your business, new changes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may make it easier to receive assistance and recover more quickly in the event that the worst happens.

On January 19, 2024, FEMA announced the most comprehensive reforms to its Disaster Assistance Program in the past 20 years. Based on decades of feedback from disaster survivors, communities, and stakeholders, the changes—which will take effect for new disasters declared on or after March 22, 2024—are intended to provide quicker access to needed funds, expand eligibility for property repairs, and create an easier application process to help survivors jumpstart their recovery. Read on to learn about some of the highlights of FEMA’s new initiatives.

Serious Needs Assistance Program

In an effort to standardize immediate financial support for survivors, FEMA is replacing its Critical Needs Assistance program with a cash relief program called Serious Needs Assistance. Previously, assistance was only provided based on a disaster-by-disaster evaluation. The new program, on the other hand, will be available in all disasters receiving Individual Assistance, offering an initial payment of $750 for households with serious needs. This payment is intended to help recipients cover immediate expenses related to sheltering, evacuation, and meeting basic household needs, and will be given in addition to other assistance that may be provided.

Aid for Underinsured Survivors

Often, disaster survivors do not receive adequate compensation from their insurance companies to cover the costs of rebuilding. The new FEMA initiatives aim to bridge this gap by streamlining insurance-related rules. Previously, if a survivor received $42,500 from their insurance company (the 2024 maximum that Congress would authorize FEMA to provide for repairs), they would not be eligible for additional assistance, regardless of whether the insurance payment covered all rebuilding costs and other losses. Under the amended approach, survivors may receive assistance up to the $42,500 cap to help cover costs not reimbursed by insurance, including deductibles and underinsured losses.

Removal of Loan Application Requirements

Previously, survivors were required to apply for a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan before they’d be eligible to receive assistance for personal property and other non-housing losses. However, the Agency had received a great deal of feedback over the years indicating that survivors were confused by this requirement, which often made them navigate the process of applying for a loan they did not necessarily want. As a result, the SBA loan requirement will not be in effect going forward, thereby simplifying the disaster assistance process and giving survivors the option to simultaneously apply for help from FEMA and the SBA.

The former SBA loan requirement also applied to entrepreneurs and other self-employed individuals seeking to cover their business losses. In addition to removing this requirement, FEMA may now provide self-employed survivors with some initial financial support to replace disaster-damaged tools and equipment, as well as other items required for a specific trade or profession. This assistance is subject to the $42,500 maximum; above this amount, SBA loans will continue to provide additional support.

Other Reforms

In its efforts to improve the disaster relief process, FEMA has introduced several other reforms, including:

  • Expanding habitability criteria. Previously, homes that had pre-existing conditions (for instance, a leaky roof) would not qualify for FEMA assistance with repairs in parts of the home where those conditions existed. The new rules make it easier for survivors to fix their disaster-damaged homes, regardless of pre-existing conditions.
  • Accessibility improvements. Survivors with disabilities will now be able to use FEMA funding to make certain accessibility improvements to their damaged homes, enabling them to make their living places even more accessible than they were before the disaster.
  • Removing barriers for late applicants. The new rules acknowledge that disaster survivors are navigating an array of challenges. To help alleviate the burdens they are facing, survivors are no longer required to provide documentation describing why their application for assistance was late.

As the new FEMA guidelines take effect this spring, businesses and individuals affected by disasters will likely find it easier to access the assistance they need to begin rebuilding and recovering their losses. For more information, visit https://www.fema.gov/press-release/20240119/biden-harris-administration-reforms-disaster-assistance-program-help.