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Monday, February 6th, 2023

Bill to make simplified application for federal disaster assistance advances to Senate

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A bill from United States Sens. Gary Peters (D-MI) and James Lankford (R-OK), the Disaster Assistance Simplification Act, advanced out of Senate committee last week, putting to the Senate floor the idea of simplifying the application process for federal disaster assistance.

“Victims of natural disasters and emergencies in Michigan and across the nation who are trying to recover should not have to face burdensome, complicated processes to apply for federal aid,” Peters, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said. “This commonsense, bipartisan legislation will establish a simple, universal application for families who are seeking federal help to rebuild their lives.”

To achieve this, the bill would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop a universal application usable by all federal agencies for disaster survivors seeking federal assistance. Such assistance applies for recovery from hurricanes, floods, wildfires and a variety of other disasters. Currently, applicants must fill out separate applications that vary agency to agency, stretching recovery and response out by weeks and months.

In some cases, FEMA may be able to provide financial or direct assistance for housing through its Individuals and Households Program. In other cases, where uninsured or underinsured damage has been incurred to home or personal property in disaster areas, it might be more beneficial to go through the Small Business Administration’s Real Property Disaster Loans and Personal Property Loans. These are just a couple examples, and yet, according to analysis cited by the Senators, 50 percent of the questions on both assistance efforts’ applicant forms are duplicative. Such a bureaucratic hurdle, they fear, may cause some to simply push survivors beyond their breaking point, and cause them to give up and forgo help.

“Oklahomans are familiar with disasters and the hoops people have to jump through to get federal disaster assistance,” Lankford said. “I’ve consistently heard from disaster victims about how difficult and disjointed the grant application process was in an already burdensome situation. Our bill creates one application on disasterassistance.gov to use across federal agencies to ensure disaster victims can easily apply for assistance while they continue to clean up. This is a government customer service issue we can solve to make it easier for Americans to access the help they need.”

In addition to streamlining the assistance process, the bill would also allow FEMA to share information on disaster survivors — in line with federal data security standards — with other federal agencies as a means to simplify recovery efforts and reduce that bureaucratic burden. FEMA would be designated the lead agency for implementing the universal disaster assistance application.

The Disaster Assistance Simplification Act is backed by various nonprofits and emergency-focused organizations, including the Bipartisan Policy Center Action, Environmental Defense Fund, St. Bernard Project, National Emergency Management Association and the International Association of Emergency Managers.