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‘ASSISTANCE NOT APPROVED’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/25/2021 Hannah Dreier
a person in a dark room: A bare bulb illuminates some of the bathroom damage in Kim Schmadeke's mobile home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post) A bare bulb illuminates some of the bathroom damage in Kim Schmadeke's mobile home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — On the morning Kim Schmadeke decided to make a final plea to the U.S. government for help, she peered out through drawn curtains at her battered neighborhood.

Trees on the ground. Tarps over roofs. More tarps over shredded sides of homes — all remnants of a freak inland hurricane that blew through in August 2020, tore down half the city’s trees and damaged 90 percent of its homes. It was a brutal storm that was especially damaging to mobile home parks like Kirkwood Estates where Kim lived and where, seven months later, she was the last person who hadn’t given up on getting the help Washington officials had promised in the first days after the disaster.

“This ordeal is wreaking havoc on my life,” she began typing on her computer, beneath a buckling ceiling. On the floor were tubs marking the areas too soggy to step. In the bathroom, the toilet was tilting because of the rotting floor and the shower had stopped working, leaving her to clean herself up at the kitchen sink.

She read back what she had typed, imagining how the words would sound to the people she was sending them to at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Does that sound stupid?” she asked. And was the correct word wreaking? Was it wrecking? “This ordeal is causing me much mental anguish,” she retyped.

This was her third attempt to get help from the country’s rescue team against natural disasters, which, as extreme weather events multiply, has also become its de facto rescue team against climate change. Amid predictions of more storms, fires, and floods, one of the first things President Biden did after taking office was give FEMA a bigger mandate, starting with an initiative to steer billions of dollars toward protecting against climate disasters before they strike.

But the reality is that even as millions of Americans will soon be turning to FEMA as disasters worsen, the agency has grown dramatically more restrictive with the help it gives out. Iowa is one indication of this: According to FEMA data, 22,000 people applied for aid, and 19,000 received notices telling them they were not eligible. Of those 19,000, Kim was among the few hundred who didn’t take that initial no for a final answer. And now, even though she knew that most people who appealed were turned down again, she set her mind to persuading the agency that she needed its support, going slowly to get the words right.

“The damage to my home is mounting,” she typed. “I have mold growing, water running down the walls and my front door will barely open and shut. On top of that, my toilet is sinking into the floor.”

She kept typing. “Please stop playing games with me,” she wrote and then deleted because it might sound angry. “I feel like I have been left out to dry and am spinning in circles,” she wrote and kept going for more than an hour.

Her trailer was intentionally dim, with layers of blinds and lace curtains drawn against the neighbors who called her a “sweet old lady” and had no idea of the damage the storm had done to her home. An intensely private person, she had told no one the details of what her life had become except for the officials she had confided in twice and was now about to tell again.

She finished and reread what she had written. “That’s a good letter,” she said.

a person sitting at a table using a laptop: Kim at her desk in March. After her home was damaged in a wild 2020 storm and the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down her aid request, she began writing appeal letters. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post) Kim at her desk in March. After her home was damaged in a wild 2020 storm and the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down her aid request, she began writing appeal letters. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)

* * *

The agency she was writing to is one of the most crucial in times of American need. It has a budget of $24 billion and has had the same mission for 42 years: “helping people before, during and after disasters.” FEMA was created after a series of earthquakes and hurricanes made it clear the country needed a way to coordinate emergency responses. It has grown to become the bulwark against America’s worsening climate crisis, with major programs that provide temporary housing and grants to disaster survivors.

But independent reviews have shown it is not an agency that succeeds in helping everyone equally. Last year, an advisory council set up by Congress found that key FEMA programs are less accessible to disadvantaged Americans, especially poor people, and that the more aid a place receives after a disaster, the more unequal that place becomes as it recovers. “Through the entire disaster cycle, communities that have been underserved stay underserved, and thereby suffer needlessly and unjustly,” the council found.

The council singled out the Individual Assistance Program, which helps homeowners without adequate insurance rebuild after federal disasters. FEMA used to approve about two-thirds of applicants. But that changed after the agency came under criticism for letting fraud slip through following Hurricane Katrina. In recent years, the program’s approval rates have plummeted. Six million households applied for help between 2017 and 2020 and FEMA sent rejections to 4 million of them. In 2021 so far, FEMA has approved just 13 percent of applicants, its lowest rate yet.

Chris Smith, who ​directs the program, said the rejection rate “is not front of mind” with him. “What we do strive for is to provide financial assistance that can help make a home safe and secure and habitable,” he said.

chart, line chart © Provided by The Washington Post

This was the program’s directive on Aug. 10, 2020, when a massive complex of thunderclouds began to gather in South Dakota on a morning that had been forecast to be clear and sunny. The sudden windstorm, called a derecho, raced into Iowa, gathering strength as it went. By the time it darkened the noontime skies over the eastern part of the state, it was moving faster than Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Harvey, with winds reaching 140 mph. It tore through the state’s farmland, unwrapping metal silos, picking up and throwing tractors, and flattening millions of acres of drought-parched corn before growing stronger still and crashing into the mobile home parks on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids, and into the trailer Kim had been taking meticulous care of for two decades.

Sixty years old now, Kim had bought the trailer when she was 38, with money she saved during a short-lived job with the U.S. Postal Service. Until then, she and her daughter had been bouncing between low-rent apartments. With its two bedrooms, pineapple-stamped wallpaper and small yard where she planted flowers, the trailer was “life-changing,” as Kim put it. “We moved so much, and when we moved in, it just gave us stability,” she said. Her daughter lived there until she went to college, and after that, Kim had lived a mostly solitary life.

When the storm rushed in, she found herself unable to stand without being knocked over. She lay gripping the couch cushions, listening to tree branches crack and bang against her roof. In a matter of minutes, her home was ruined. She remembers seeing water streaming down the walls. She remembers opening the door and seeing streets covered in torn insulation and the glitter of smashed car windows, then closing the door and hugging herself on the couch.

The following night, Kim was taken to the hospital with a panic attack, her heart racing as she worried over how she would fix everything. The power stayed out for days. When it came back on, she found out that Cedar Rapids had been declared a federal disaster area, making her eligible for up to $71,000 in Individual Assistance aid.

She applied immediately and received a response the next day. “ASSISTANCE NOT APPROVED,” it began. Twice more she saw the word “ineligible,” and then realized it was only because the agency’s automated system hadn’t found proof in public records databases that she owned her home. So Kim wrote an appeal, a choice only 3 percent of FEMA applicants make.

After a few weeks, she got another letter. There was no explanation this time, just a check for $48, which was followed a few days later by another check, this time for $1,312, also without explanation. She appealed again, saying the money was not nearly enough to cover her damage, and that resulted in another check, again with no explanation, for $2,036. But the contractors had said it would cost $9,400 to fix the roof and the bathroom alone. Kim guessed at what FEMA wanted her to do with the money. She got the branches removed, replaced the insulation so her water pipes wouldn’t freeze, and had the trailer put back on its foundation to stop its shaking. The money wouldn’t stretch far enough to fix the bathroom, though, and it was long gone by the time she was sitting at her desk with her finished appeal letter.

The last step was to upload it. “Honest to Pete, I used to know how to do this,” she said as she looked at a list of file options. “Come on, Kimmy,” she said.

Frustrated, she went back to the FEMA site and saw a box that explained she needed to upload her letter as a PDF. “A word document will not be accepted,” it said.

“Oh lordy,” Kim said. “Does it really have to be a PDF file? I have no way to do that.”

She went back to her letter and clicked through each toolbar looking for a way to convert the file.

“I just don’t remember,” she said. “I guess I can’t send this.”

But she needed to send it, so she spent 15 minutes more looking through different toolbars. Finally, she stopped clicking and sat back in her chair, wondering what to do next.

* * *

a person standing in front of a wooden fence: Kim, 60 and suffering from chronic knee pain, braces herself as she navigates the stairs on her way to check her mailbox in Kirkwood Estates. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post) Kim, 60 and suffering from chronic knee pain, braces herself as she navigates the stairs on her way to check her mailbox in Kirkwood Estates. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)

She would have to mail the letter. But before she could do that, she would need to find ink for her printer, which cost money. And make copies of the letter, along with the contractor estimates and photographs of the damage, which cost money, too. And she had nothing but a few coins in her wallet. Before the pandemic and the storm, she had been earning as much as $100 a night driving a taxi. Now fares were scarce, and some nights she couldn’t even cover gas.

Kim had grown up in a big family in Cedar Rapids, but the family had fractured, her daughter was rarely in touch, and the last time the park management asked for an emergency contact she had written, “Don’t have anyone.” Mostly, she spent her time watching home improvement shows, like the one playing the next day as she got ready to go to work. She moved around the trailer slowly. Her diabetes was making her dizzy lately. Her knee was giving out, too, and she needed surgery, but she was putting it off until the bathroom was fixed because she was afraid if she sat on her lopsided toilet with her full weight during her recovery, it would surely go through the floor.

There were so many small indignities in her life now. She had been taking time off to give her body a break, but the taxi company owner told her that if she worked an overnight dispatch shift, he would pay her right away.

“We have to make sure everything is perfect for this family,” the TV host was saying as she turned off the show, and then she was outside for the first time in days, driving past a trailer where a woman was using her nursing school loans for roof repairs, past a trailer where the storm-shattered walls were being held together with duct tape, past a trailer in which a family was living even though the home was missing an entire side, and soon she was at the small dispatch office where she was looking forward to using a bright, clean bathroom.

When the sun rose in the morning and the woman on the day shift came to relieve her, Kim asked if the owner was still coming in. “He was going to pay me this morning,” she said.

“I thought he was, but he told me, ‘Tell Kim I’ll pay her later,’ ” the woman said.

“Oh, I thought he was coming in now,” Kim said.

“I have a $10 bill on me if you want it,” the woman said.

Kim shook her head. “But that’s nice of you to offer, though.”

Kim talks to her dispatcher after dropping off a passenger during her shift as a cabdriver. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post) Kim talks to her dispatcher after dropping off a passenger during her shift as a cabdriver. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)

That night she was back at work again, this time driving a taxi and picking up a woman at a house where the foundation had been damaged by a falling tree.

“That must have been a huge tree,” Kim said when the woman got in, noticing the stump still embedded in the concrete.

“Yes, it’s been quite the project,” the woman said and added she was still figuring out what to do after being denied federal help. “I didn’t qualify because of something. It was weird,” she said.

Seven months later, the mysteries of FEMA were a constant refrain.

A woman who needed a ride to a convenience store told Kim she regretted not fighting for disaster aid after her car was destroyed. “I told my boyfriend, ‘Let’s appeal this,’ but he was like, ‘I had enough,’ ” she said. “It was like we couldn’t handle any more disappointment.”

A man with a walker who needed a ride home from the grocery told Kim how he had struggled to apply online and eventually given up. “FEMA kept me waiting. Everything was outside my reach,” he said.

In the weeks after the storm, there were so many instances of people being turned down that J’nae Peterman, program director at a Cedar Rapids nonprofit that deals with housing emergencies, raised the issue with a FEMA liaison. “He told me the first step is always to be denied, and then you have to appeal,” Peterman remembered. She remembered him explaining the reason had to do with fraud and abuse, and her responding: “These are people in crisis. They see a denial letter, they throw it away and move on.”

Peterman was far from the first person to point this out. In September 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office urged FEMA to revise its denial letters after a review found that they lead people to believe that preliminary decisions are final. FEMA has not changed its process, but it has started putting out news releases encouraging survivors to appeal its decisions.

Not that Kim or the people in her taxi knew of these discussions. Instead, their conversations were like the one Kim had with her last fare of the night, who was worried about bedbugs. “You’d think the storm would have killed all those. It killed everything else,” the woman said.

“It killed my house, that’s for sure,” Kim said.

“Are any of the repairs done yet?”

“I need a new roof,” Kim said and left it at that.

She dropped the woman off and suddenly was crying. All the talk of damage and denials had her worried that her letter wouldn’t be good enough. Her knee was aching. She had made $57 and still needed to fill the taxi with gas.

The next day, at a supermarket, she fed her pile of photos and estimates into a copier and pressed buttons trying to make the machine start. Finally, a young clerk came over to help.

“It was a crazy storm,” he said, seeing the photographs.

She had planned to send a certified letter at the post office, but her head was swimming, so she headed back to the trailer to rest. She folded the documents into an envelope. The mail truck would be along soon. She decided to take a chance and leave it in her mailbox.

“This way, I can just get to work,” she said. “Oh, I hope I make lots of money tonight.”

She put three stamps on the envelope, then added a fourth, just to be safe.

When she got back home 10 hours later, she pulled up to the circle of light beneath her lamppost. “Let me check,” she said, and looked into the dark mailbox.

“Well, it’s on its way.”

* * *

Debris from the storm remains strewn about an athletics field. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post) Debris from the storm remains strewn about an athletics field. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post) a truck driving down a dirt road: One of the biggest reminders of the destructive derecho. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post) One of the biggest reminders of the destructive derecho. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)

The address the letter was headed to was a building in the suburbs of D.C., one of four processing centers that deal with the thousands of versions of Kim who contact FEMA every day.

Mostly, their contact comes in the form of phone calls, which can surge to more than 100,000 a day after a major disaster. But written appeals go to these centers as well, to be handled by workers who read them and — if they are persuaded the case deserves another look — call contractors and order inspections to check for fraud, then calculate new awards. The centers are an increasingly vital part of FEMA’s operation. But the agency is best known for how it shows up on-site soon after a disaster, like it did in Iowa, where it set up six drive-through tent centers for people to file applications, including one in the parking lot of the baseball stadium where Kim went to file her first appeal.

Kim remembered talking with people wearing the blue FEMA jackets she recognized from TV and driving away feeling optimistic. She went to the stadium because FEMA comes into cities and towns, but it doesn’t typically go into neighborhoods, leaving that to local officials who report back on what is needed. In Kim’s case, the only person who came to her trailer in the days after the storm was a man with an EMT badge who took her blood pressure, whose face she saw again on the news, with a warning that he was posing as a medic and faced felony charges.

FEMA kept its tents up in Cedar Rapids until the end of September and in early November closed the window to register for help. As chance would have it, a few days after Kim sent her letter and while she was waiting for a reply, two FEMA officials drove in from Missouri to check with the city on how things had been going. They were meeting with city manager Jeff Pomeranz, who was hoping to do his own version of what Kim was attempting and ask FEMA for more money. In his case, he needed millions of dollars to clear fallen trees on public property.

“We don’t have mountains and oceans, but what we have is beautiful trees, so we’ve got to get them back,” he said as the meeting began.

They were in a basement training room at City Hall. Everyone was wearing masks because of the pandemic. The lights were out, and a mechanic was puzzling over the light switches in one corner. The room had been set up with chairs and tables for the meeting, but the men had stayed standing as they exchanged business cards that were hard to read in the dark.

“Well, one of the reasons I wanted to stop by is to check, ‘How are we doing?’ ” said DuWayne Tewes, the official overseeing FEMA’s Iowa response. “It sounds like so far no complaints?”

“Things have really been going very well. I absolutely feel like FEMA was a partner with us all the way,” Pomeranz said, and clasped his hands in front of his chest to emphasize his gratitude.

“That’s what I love to hear,” Tewes said.

“We wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t the absolute truth,” Pomeranz said.

“Great,” Tewes said. He glanced down at his notes for the meeting. “Well, you know, one of the great things I saw was how the community came together,” he said.

“They still are,” Pomeranz said.

Amid such pleasantries, the men continued to stand in the dark, shifting their weight back and forth as the mechanic grabbed a chair, stood on it, and began poking at one of the lights that wasn’t working.

“All events are different,” Pomeranz said now, moving on to the topic of trees and his hope that FEMA would give the city $60 million for cleanup. “But you know, you lose a structure, as long as no one’s hurt, you can rebuild the structure. But in the case of a tree, you can replant a tree, but before it has the effect of a tree canopy, you’re looking at decades.”

The visitors nodded. “It’s a process,” Tewes said, “and we’re doing everything we can,” and as he went on, explaining the process, Pomeranz sighed and put out a hand to support himself against the wall. They had been standing for 40 minutes. The mechanic gave up and left, and Pomeranz thought of one more thing he wanted to check on.

“What about the Individual Assistance perspective? Has that been going pretty smoothly?” he asked.

“The registration window has closed, but there might be other avenues,” Tewes said. “There might be a voluntary agency to hook them up with.”

Pomeranz smiled and nodded and said, “Okay, great. That was very important to us, and I know the federal government moved on that and just kept things going without a hitch.”

After an hour, Tewes asked if there was anything else the agency could offer. Pomeranz shook his head no.

“We just haven’t had any negative issues,” he said.

“That’s what I really love hearing,” Tewes said.

“Absolutely. We’re good.” Pomeranz said. “Sorry the lights were off,” he added as he walked the men back up to the street.

Outside, the two officials stood in the sun, masks still in place. “Well, I freely admit, I am very pleased,” Tewes said to the other FEMA officer. “You can’t see it, but I have a giant grin on my face.”

* * *

Until Kim can get the leaky roof fixed, the buckets that mark the spots where the floor is giving away collect the drips. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post) © Daniel Acker/For The Washington Post Until Kim can get the leaky roof fixed, the buckets that mark the spots where the floor is giving away collect the drips. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)

Ten minutes away from City Hall, Kim lifted her lace curtain because she thought she had heard the mail truck.

Nothing.

Later, she checked the FEMA site once more. Still nothing. It was her night off, so she turned on a home improvement show where the host was looking with disdain at a windowless bathroom he was supposed to renovate. “It’s a basement bathroom,” he said.

“Still better than mine,” Kim said.

Sometimes, Kim imagined being on the shows she watched. “But there are people more in need,” she said. “And they usually pick families.” She watched as the camera panned over a new toilet and a double vanity sink. Now the host was showing the family their made-over home and the father was crying. “I’d be crying too,” Kim said and fell silent. The episode wasn’t over, but she shut it off.

It had been five days since she had sent her letter, and she was wishing she had used certified mail. Had she added enough stamps? Had the return address label fallen off? Would she even know if it never arrived at its destination?

On the sixth day, she found an Internet shut-off notice in her mailbox and called the company. “I’ve never missed a payment and the one time I’m late you’re going to shut me off?” she said. The representative agreed to give her a few more days, and Kim put the letter next to the overdue car insurance bill and water bill, which had tripled since her toilet began leaking after the storm.

At the one-week mark, she was back at work and got lucky with a $108 fare. Internet paid, insurance paid, water bill paid. “That’s something,” she said.

At the two-week mark, the park management put up a sign saying “Spring inspections are starting,” and told Kim that she needed to bring the outside of her trailer up to standard if she wanted to keep living there. She promised to get it repainted that month.

Day after day was the same. Wake up. Clean herself at the kitchen sink. Check the FEMA site. Check the mail. Go to work. Watch a show. And spend the last hours of the night on a street where it was too dark to see the twisted trees and tarped roofs, too dark to see anything but little pools of light here and there, and in one of them was Kim at her desk checking the FEMA site one more time before she went to sleep.

And then came the 26th day, when Kim checked the site and saw a letter waiting for her.

“ASSISTANCE NOT APPROVED,” it began.

She read it slowly, then read it over again, looking for a reason and seeing nothing except that she had received “all eligible assistance for this type of loss.”

Her printer was still out of ink, and so she began copying down the letter by hand for her records. Her chest was tight and it was hard to breathe. Despite everything, part of her had believed that the agency would give her more help. She copied down the words “you are not eligible,” and then the word “ineligible,” and then she stopped writing and started to cry. She shut off her computer, washed herself in the kitchen sink, turned off the lights and went to bed.

She wasn’t going to write to FEMA anymore. She wasn’t going to appeal. She was done.

a man sitting in a chair: Kim surfs the Internet at home, after narrowly earning enough money to pay the bill. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post) © Daniel Acker/For The Washington Post Kim surfs the Internet at home, after narrowly earning enough money to pay the bill. (Daniel Acker for The Washington Post)

hannah.dreier@washpost.com

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