FEMA Loses Court Battle Over Hurricane Dolly Aid

Feb. 23, 2017

Jerome Wesevich, 915-585-5120 (o), jwesevich@trla.org
Nancy Nusser, 410-934-9588 (m), nnusser@trla.org

Feb. 23, 2017 WESLACO, Texas – The U.S. District Court in Brownsville has issued its final judgment after an eight-year court battle with Valley homeowners represented by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA). The court last Thursday ruled that FEMA violated federal law by using a secret rule to deny home-repair assistance to 24,027 families after Hurricane Dolly hit Texas’ Gulf Coast in 2008. Under the court order, FEMA must reconsider – without using the secret rule – all Dolly disaster-assistance applications filed by the 26 plaintiffs named in the suit and by any of 7,000 members of the community group La Unin del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), a plaintiff in the suit.

“The ruling is important not only for the plaintiffs but also for people across the nation,” said TRLA attorney Jerome Wesevich. “Presidents declare over 50 disasters every year, after which FEMA distributes billions of dollars in assistance. Right now, no one knows how FEMA decides who gets assistance. This ruling indicates that FEMA has to do a better job of explaining how it makes its decisions.”

“The court ruled in our favor, and, of course, we’re happy about that,” said Agustina Iglesias, among those whose homes were severely damaged by the hurricane. “But it’s been eight years since Dolly struck, and thousands of people in the Valley still haven’t gotten any financial assistance from the federal government. Dolly tore apart our homes, and we’ve had to rebuild and repair as best we can on our own.”

A single mother, Ms. Iglesias was inside her home with her five children when Dolly struck. They watched water rise several inches inside their home, and they heard the wind rip shingles and siding off the outside of the house. Because FEMA denied repair assistance, Ms. Iglesias had friends install a two-by-four in her living room as a makeshift joist to prevent her ceiling from caving in.

After the July storm, FEMA deployed dozens of inspectors who were neither qualified nor trained to inspect homes. FEMA then directed the inspectors not to record damages as “disaster related” unless they concluded that Dolly’s relationship to the observed damages was “significant, obvious, and without question.” The court last week ruled that use of this secret standard of proof violates federal law.

Within months after Dolly struck, FEMA spokesman Charles Powell told a reporter that Valley homeowners received less FEMA aid than other communities because “a lot of the homes built were built from second-hand materials, [s]o the damage was, in most cases, caused from the faulty building of the house and not the storm.” TRLA’s Wesevich said, “Mr. Powell essentially told Valley homeowners that their damage was their own fault, and FEMA won’t help them just because they are poor. That’s not only offensive; it’s illegal.”

Congress allowed each family harmed by Dolly up to $28,800 in total disaster relief services. Many families were inside their homes when Dolly struck, and they saw the hurricane damage their houses. But FEMA did not even bother to record families’ eyewitness accounts of what they saw. Instead, FEMA sent its untrained inspectors to apply a secret standard to decide which damages were caused by Dolly. When FEMA refused to disclose how it made its decisions, plaintiffs sued so they could see FEMA’s standards, and claimed that FEMA does not offer disaster assistance benefits equally to low-income families.

Hurricane Dolly struck one of the poorest regions in the nation. So far FEMA has paid only $25 million to repair homes post-Dolly, even though FEMA paid some 2,000 times this amount –over $50 billion – to make repairs after Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012.
A federal court in the District of Columbia is considering a similar TRLA lawsuit against FEMA arising from 2015 and 2016 Texas disasters, Barbosa v. DHS, No. 1: 16-cv-1843. “We will keep fighting until FEMA is forced to treat everyone fairly and tell us exactly how it decides who gets disaster assistance,” said TRLA’s Wesevich.

Any resident of Hidalgo, Cameron, or Willacy County who applied to FEMA for Dolly assistance and did not receive all of the home repair aid they believe is due may call TRLA’s Disaster Hotline at 866-757-1570.