NYTimes Misleads on Pace of Flood Relief

FEMA's disaster delays are structural, not Congressional

Congress: dysfunctional, broken, mad, maybe even the worst. Ever.

But The New York Times went one too far today in Robert Pear’s front page story, “Flood Victims Get Fed Up With Congress as It Debates Aid,” with the implication that Congress is also to blame for the (still) slime-filled homes and generally sorry state of flood victims in northeastern Pennsylvania as well as what’s described as a very slow flood recovery process there.

Standing in the living room of their house, now full of mud, slime and debris, Helen and Peter Kelly cannot believe that Congress is bickering over disaster aid to people like them. The roaring waters of the Susquehanna River burst into their home more than two weeks ago.

We learn that the Kellys have lost “everything” and that their bathtub is filled with mud.

Pear also talks to Martin J. Bonifanti, chief of the Lake Winola volunteer fire company, who is also dispirited and mad at Congress in the wake of the flood:

Members of Congress are playing with people’s lives, not just their own political careers,” said [Bonifanti]. “While they are rattling on among themselves down there in Washington, people are suffering.

These nuggets of personal tragedy and frustration are dropped into a story that is focused on the policy debate in Washington over whether to pass spending bill that would provide additional money for disaster relief without additional spending cuts. With Pear’s presentation of the story, though, these quotes and anecdotes give the sense that these Pennsylvanians—more than two weeks!—after the flood, are in this sorry state because of Congress’s impasse.

They’re not. They’re in this state because there has been a disaster, and this is how disaster assistance works (or doesn’t work) in America. Though this is an unusual moment of Congressional “bickering”—or Republican intransigence—over federal disaster aid, this bickering is about funds to come, not funds that have already been allocated. There is nothing unique about the sentiments of the disaster victims. Assistance and recovery will always come too slow, though so far, these delays have nothing to do with the current political spat. When it does come, many victims will say it is not be enough. (I am from a city that was devastated by flooding in 2008; it is still awaiting some of its committed federal aid.)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency parcels out relief money to people that lack insurance to cover disaster damage, but the agency is careful and quick to remind victims that they cannot make them whole.” As made clear early in FEMA’s “Help after a disaster” handbook there are limitations to assistance.

Individuals and Households Program will not cover all of your losses from damage to your property (home, personal property, household goods) that resulted from the disaster. IHP is not intended to restore your damaged property to its condition before the disaster. In some cases, IHP may only provide enough money, up to the program limits, for you to return an item to service.

The average FEMA emergency assistance package runs around $5,000, though the agency can provide up to $30,200 to disaster victims. Because FEMA inspects disaster-damaged properties before calculating these relief packages—certainly there’d be lots of waste and fraud (or fears of it) if they didn’t—disaster victims often have to wait longer than they’d like to.

Yes, it’s gross that disaster aid is being politicized in this moment, but it’s also important not to mislead the public about what disaster aid really does and can do. It takes cities and victims months if not years to recover from a disaster. Congress may be dysfunctional, but in this case, it’s not all their fault.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.