Hurricane Laura devastated parts of Louisiana and Texas last week with high winds and flooding, as communities in California battle severe wildfires. Federal government programs intended to help communities in the aftermath of disaster face additional challenges this year due to COVID-19. 

Kathleen Bergin, professor of law at Cornell Law School, is an expert in disaster and constitutional law whose work in mass evacuation shelters after Hurricane Katrina is used as a blueprint for protecting survivors. She says that federal agencies will need to coordinate to provide relief to families, but it remains to be seen how effective agencies will be in providing aid to those already made vulnerable by COVID-19 pandemic, including immigrants.


Bergin says:

“Even before the pandemic, the system we have for responding to disaster provides important help in the short-run, but doesn’t do the best job of getting vulnerable people back on their feet. FEMA provides temporary assistance to renters, for example, but not the kind of ‘wrap around’ case management that helps families find a suitable place to live that’s close to their job, accessible to medical care, or near a school that’s right for their kids. There aren’t many places in the U.S. with a surplus of available housing, so when a catastrophic hurricane destroys what little is available, it means that families will be forced to move to areas which may not meet their personal or family needs. Federal legislation has been introduced to deal with this issue, but Congress has yet to act on it.     

“The fallout will be hard on undocumented immigrants, especially those who lost work in the underground economy when businesses closed in response to COVID-19. On the one hand, federal disaster benefits, including cash assistance or help with rent or home repairs, are limited to U.S. citizens and certain qualifying foreign residents. On the other hand, even mixed status families who are eligible for limited assistance – because a child is a U.S. citizen, for example – might hesitate to apply for them, fearing that personal information could be turned over to immigration agents. There’s no indication that federal agencies are sharing that type of information, but Trump’s aggressive anti-immigration agenda understandably discourages parents of U.S. citizens from applying for benefits their children are lawfully entitled to.  

“FEMA helps coordinate the immediate response to a disaster – things like evacuations or search and rescue operations that are primarily executed by state and local officials. But other programs administered by HUD, the SBA, and the USDA kick-in during the longer-term recovery. How these entities coordinate operations in response to an over-active hurricane season, wildfires out west, catastrophic windstorms, and flooding in the heartland – all while managing a global pandemic, has yet to be determined. Following Hurricane Maria, advocates in Puerto Rico worked with FEMA to ensure that lawful homeowners who didn’t have documented title to their property wouldn’t lose out on much-needed repair assistance. But when it came to rebuilding, homeowners were left in a lurch because HUD required different forms of proof to establish eligibility for benefits. Three years later, those wrinkles are still being worked out, so we’ll have to wait and see whether similar problems hobble the response to Hurricane Laura or any of the major disasters we’re dealing with.”