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Recovering from a disaster

I was really frustrated with all the paperwork and having to prove I needed help.

I told the case worker, 'I’ve already lost everything; haven’t I shown you enough to show you I’m deserving? Do you not trust what I’m saying?'

— Hurricane Survivor

After receiving funds from FEMA, a son and daughter start work to rebuild their father’s home damaged by Hurricane Maria. They are starting the process by salvaging what they can until contractors, who are in high demand, can begin building a stronger concrete home.

FEMA/K.C. Wilsey

Where we are

An increasing number of Americans face natural disasters each year, yet they often lack the support necessary to fully recover.

When a natural disaster hits, survivors face the painful task of putting the pieces of their lives back together. They must care for basic needs and keep businesses going while enduring stress and trauma. On top of this, people must manage multiple bureaucratic processes with competing guidance, a confusing and frustrating journey at a moment when people expect government to show up and help.

 

Ten years ago, FEMA managed an average of 108 disasters a year. Today, that number is 311 disasters a year.1 More than 20M individuals and families survive a Federally recognized disaster every year.

1 Source: FEMA

Challenge
How might we provide a less frustrating and more dignified recovery experience for disaster survivors?


Our approach

To start, we listened to people’s stories.

The Life Experience research team spoke with people nationwide about this moment in their lives and where the government process could have been simpler and more helpful. The listening sessions captured honest conversations about peoples' experiences, candid feedback on what could have worked better, and what really made a difference for them. Their stories have been combined and are represented here through illustrations. The quotes are real, but names have been changed.


Cristina
Nursing Assistant
Hurricane survivor
Mobile home owner

Jordan
Nonprofit administrator
Tornado survivor
Renter

Linda
Childcare Center Owner
Wildfire survivor
Home owner


Cristina
Nursing Assistant
Hurricane survivor
Mobile home owner
Surviving a disaster:
Cristina, her husband Carlos, and their two-year-old daughter, Sofia, are forced to evacuate their mobile home when they learn about a hurricane approaching the area. Once the storm passes, they return to find devastating damage and have no idea what to do next.
Navigating the assistance process: Cristina begins applying for government assistance to repair her home so that it is safe to live in. She is confused and overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork required by multiple government agencies and feels pained by having to repeatedly describe the storm’s damage and her family’s loss.
Rebuilding and coping with ongoing trauma: Cristina eventually receives some money to fix her home but it’s not enough. To make the necessary repairs, she and Carlos take out a loan that they don’t know how they will ever repay. The stress of their new debt and worry about future storms is exhausting.
“I just sort of remember sitting down and filling out a bunch of forms. [It was] confusing because we weren’t sure what the point of it was, we didn’t know what we were getting, but they told us to sign up for this stuff, so we did.”
Pain Point
Burdensome application process
Survivors apply for help and request services from multiple agencies and aid organizations—a repetitive, tiresome, and often re-traumatizing process that takes time and attention away from other recovery tasks.

Jordan
Nonprofit administrator
Tornado survivor
Renter
Surviving a disaster:
Jordan and his fiancé Mark survive their apartment building getting destroyed by a tornado but lose most of their possessions. It's confusing to tease out what his renter's insurance will and will not cover. Jordan is fearful for his future.
Searching for assistance: Jordan struggles to understand what assistance he is eligible for. He waits in a long line at a Disaster Recovery Center and is told to apply for certain assistance but later finds out he is ineligible because he is a renter, not a homeowner. By digging through lots of information online, he eventually figures out what makes sense for him to apply for.
Rebuilding and coping with ongoing trauma: Jordan and Mark eventually receive some assistance, but it doesn't cover their costs. This situation is especially tough because the only apartment they can find is more expensive than the one that was destroyed. With everything that has happened, they must put their plans for a wedding and dream of buying a home on hold.
“I [a renter] was told I had to apply for an SBA loan if we wanted to be reimbursed for lost property. FEMA told us we had to be denied by SBA first. When I called for help, I was told ‘We’re just customer service, we don’t really know.’”
Pain Point
Inconsistent information
Many survivors find government websites, printed materials, and interactions with agency field staff inconsistent or uncoordinated. The quality of recovery information varies depending on the staff person or communication channel that a survivor encounters.

Linda
Childcare Center Owner
Wildfire survivor
Home owner
Surviving a disaster:
Linda is forced to evacuate her home because a wildfire is sweeping her area. She grabs just a few necessities from her house before escaping. The fire destroys her neighborhood, including her home and business.
Navigating the assistance process: Linda is torn between trying to sort out her personal loss and rebuilding her business. She applies for FEMA assistance for her home and an SBA loan for her business even though she worries about going into debt for a business that will struggle in this area now.
Rebuilding and coping with ongoing trauma: Linda eventually receives assistance for her home but is denied an SBA loan because of her low credit score. She makes the difficult decision to close the childcare center and lay off her employees.
“One of the hard parts of being a business owner is that everyone is struggling from a personal perspective, especially your employees. They had no power, they had to go find food. It was a survival thing.”
Pain Point
Lack of business-specific support
Some survivors find there is a lack of guidance and support focused solely on small business owners. Many loan-focused options have inconsistent eligibility requirements, or are hard to understand.

 

The team conducted interviews in-person, virtually, in English, and in Spanish. Participants included people from twelve states and territories who have experienced hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires and represented various backgrounds—including low-income renters and home owners, parents, the elderly, new immigrants, veterans, and people with disabilities.

The team spoke with:

  • 43 survivors
  • 22 frontline staff
  • 16 government / nonprofit staff

Discovery insights

Framing for collective thinking about customer pain points

How might we support survivors by minimizing the burden of navigating multiple applications?

How might we better design our information, interactions, and services for people who have endured a traumatic experience and may have ongoing stress?

How might we improve and coordinate our communications about the full range of Federal programs for the general public and small business owners alike?

Next steps

Teams are currently working on identifying and scoping projects to move into the design phase. Please check back on this page in the coming months for updates.

Project Documentation

Agency collaborators

  • General Services Administration
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Office of Management and Budget
  • Department of Health & Human Services
  • Small Business Administration
  • Department of the Interior
  • Department of Commerce
  • Department of Homeland Security