Murkowski grills FEMA leader on Alaska quake assistance
As the Federal Emergency Management Agency continues to provide assistance after Southcentral Alaska's Nov. 30 earthquake, the agency's administrator found himself on shaky ground Wednesday with the state's senior U.S. senator.
As the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee discussed FEMA's 2020 budget, Sen. Lisa Murkowski told those in attendance that the process of receiving financial assistance following the 7.1 temblor is inconsistent. She added that some people need more money out of the system as they struggle to rebuild.
"What they're saying is, 'Look, I'm not asking FEMA to repay the cost of my home. We know that,'" she said. "We know FEMA is not designed to make you whole and they're not seeking that."
Murkowski had some sharp questions for Peter Gaynor, FEMA's acting administrator, telling him the agency's individual assistance program has "kind of a black box reputation."
“Nobody really knows what is eligible for a home repair award. No one knows if inspectors are consistent. The specific criteria that inspectors use isn’t readily available. Appeal decisions aren’t published,” Murkowski said. “You indicate in your testimony, which I appreciate, that you’re seeking to reduce the complexity of FEMA to promote simpler less complex processes to streamline it. And that’s good, but how do we let folks know that disaster victims can have confidence in this program that is being administered and is it being administered as we intended it to?”
According to a statement from Murkowski's office, Gaynor acknowledged the senator's concerns and "agreed that the process at times can be complex."
"Gaynor stated that he was committed to making adjustments to the program to try to deliver maximum disaster relief and assistance to Alaskans in need," Murkowski's staff wrote.
In the meantime, Murkowski said her office is fielding many calls from people unhappy with lower-than-expected assistance under the program, which has a maximum award of $34,000 per person. They're free to appeal, but they'd need to access the inspector's report to learn how a number was determined, further muddying the waters.
Murkowski says one resident estimated that repairs to a damaged home will range from $220,000 to $400,000. His initial assistance was $2,337. After two appeals, that amount rose to $6,000.
Another resident looking at $83,000 in repairs received $3,000. Following an appeal, another $1,900 came his way.
"They're not asking for a Cadillac here," Murkowski said. "But they are asking for the ability to have [homes] restored to safe and habitable condition."
Murkowski noted that due to spring melting, some Alaskans are still discovering additional damage.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the FEMA deadline as May 1, 2019.
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