Abstract: Barriers to Receiving FEMA Assistance Among Mobile Home Residents after Hurricane Florence (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Barriers to Receiving FEMA Assistance Among Mobile Home Residents after Hurricane Florence

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Camelback B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Ehren Dohler, MSW, Research Assistant, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Amy Blank-Wilson, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the primary source of housing assistance immediately following natural disasters for low-income households. FEMA assistance can help disaster-impacted households avoid homelessness and begin the recovery process. In many of the disaster-prone areas of the rural South, many low-income households live in mobile homes, which are more vulnerable to disaster impacts that more traditional housing types. Despite mobile homes’ prevalence as affordable housing, there is still much to learn about how FEMA helps mobile home residents. The aim of this paper is to understand the rates of assistance receipt among mobile homeowners and attempt to identify barriers to receiving FEMA assistance.

Methods: This study explores FEMA assistance provided to North Carolina residents after Hurricane Florence in 2018. This study analyzes publicly available records from OpenFEMA that include all applicants (N=138,107) for FEMA assistance in North Carolina after Hurricane Florence. This study uses descriptive statistics to examine the households who applied for assistance, the housing they were living in at the time of the storm, what assistance each applicant was eligible for and received from FEMA, and FEMA’s decisions at key points during the application process (e.g., whether a property was inspected by FEMA). This study aims to identify barriers to FEMA assistance by examining which points in the application process seem to disproportionately find low-income mobile homeowners ineligible for assistance and what personal factors (income levels, insurance rates) are associated with assistance denials.

Results: This study finds that after Hurricane Florence only about one-quarter (26%) of mobile homeowners who applied received any FEMA housing assistance even though over 91% received an inspection (the first necessary step to receiving assistance). About 17% received rental assistance and 22% received repair assistance (some households received both). Less than 1% received Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA, which pays for motel rooms). Yet FEMA assessed that 80% of mobile homes incurred damage from the storm and 35% of were uninhabitable. Applicants had few personal resources to draw on: over two-thirds of applicants had incomes below $30,000 annually, and only 2% had flood insurance. Regression results indicate that mobile homeowners had lower rates of assistance receipt after inspection compared to non-mobile single-family homeowners even after controlling for income, damage amounts, and insurance rates (β= -.435, p<.001).

Conclusions: These results demonstrate that mobile homeowners faced significant barriers to receiving assistance after Hurricane Florence and had few personal resources to draw on to help repair their homes. Mobile homeowners successfully navigated the initial stages of the process (up through receiving an inspection) but experienced high rates of denial after inspection. Recent adjustments to FEMA assistance policy may improve some of these outcomes by reducing paperwork requirements and making other changes, but state and federal policymakers should still focus on making sure that vulnerable groups, including people living in mobile homes, receive the disaster assistance they need.