Black ExperienceNationalStacy M. Brown

FEMA Changing Rules that Deprive African Americans of Crucial Aid

Historically, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) relied on deeds to prove that land belonged to disaster victims before it sent relief funds to individuals.

The guidelines denied aid to many African American applicants whose home or land was inherited informally without written wills.

But, as first reported by NBC News, the rules quietly have changed.

As Louisiana and Mississippi deal with floodwaters and the after-effects of Hurricane Ida, which has now wreaked havoc in the Northeast, FEMA officials revealed plans to NBC to announce significant changes in how they would verify homeownership for disaster relief applications.

FEMA said its mission is to assist those who inherited property without a will.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we understand each individual situation is unique and that we need not have a one-size-fits-all approach,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told the news outlet.

“We’re going to continue to try to improve our program and make additional changes,” she said. “Some of them we can do right away, like this. Some of them will require some regulatory change. But we are really driving hard to make these changes.”

African Americans, particularly those in Southern states, have routinely had difficulty proving property ownership.

Even without a damaging natural disaster, the Gullah Geechee community of St. Helena Island told The Informer last year that they were fighting to protect their lands and the legacy left by their ancestors, who toiled for lifetimes under the brutal oppression of slavery.

Local tax officials held an auction of some of the property on the island belonging to families, citing delinquent tax payments that have accumulated over the years.

The descendants who have lived in the Gullah Geechee community, which extends the coastal areas of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, possessed deeds but lacked titles to their properties.

Many in the community discovered that their ancestors left no wills and never possessed a title, primarily because of oppressive laws.

The freed slaves were deprived of an education and were at the mercy of white men who sold the land for as little as $1.25 per acre and never provided appropriate sale documentation.

“The heirs don’t have a title in their names,” said Sará Reynolds Green, an activist and farmer who raises produce on a St. Helena plot of land passed down throughout her family’s generations.

While FEMA’s new rules don’t necessarily apply to St. Helena, they should provide a more level playing field for African Americans affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other disasters.

NBC reported that the updated guidelines “will also expand the options for paperwork renters can submit to prove that they live at affected properties.”

According to the report, “in addition to a written lease or rent receipts, renters will now be able to submit documents such as their car registration and letters from local schools or nonprofits. People in mobile homes will also have the flexibility to submit a letter from the property’s owner.”

Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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