Applying FEMA’s Individual Assistance program to COVID-19

Apr 10, 2020
How FEMA’s Individual Assistance (IA) program can be used to help individuals during COVID-19 — and how state and local governments should be thinking about this funding option.

Most people understand Individual Assistance as the FEMA program that individuals turn to after a natural disaster to receive temporary housing repair money, low interest loans from the SBA, and other benefits.

COVID-19 is a different kind of disaster. There are no floods or fires, and people have been ordered to stay in their homes. While the majority of the Individual Assistance awards are not applicable to this pandemic, there are some ways that IA can be leveraged now to provide relief. How is FEMA applying Individual Assistance awards today, and how might the applications change as the situation evolves? What do U.S. citizens need to know about Individual Assistance during COVID-19, and how can our state and local partners take advantage of the resources that are being made available through the program?

In this podcast, three ICF public health and disaster management experts—Meghan Treber, Senior Director for Emergency Preparedness and Public Health Preparedness; Kelly Wilson, Disaster Management Consultant; and Marty Altman, Vice President for Disaster Recovery—discuss the applications of FEMA’s Individual Assistance program to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moderated by Marko Bourne, former director of policy at FEMA, the conversation covers:

  • An update on where we are from a public health and medical perspective and the latest from HHS, CDC, and ASPR.
  • Potential uses of Individual Assistance under the “other needs assistance” part of the FEMA Individual Assistance program, such as pandemic unemployment and crisis counseling.
  • Ways to think creatively in order to broaden the application of Individual Assistance to help individuals and households pay for items that fall outside of their normal operating expenses.
  • How state and local governments should coordinate services with private nonprofits to avoid duplication of benefits.
  • Planning advice for states that are trying to prepare for the coming hurricane season and its attendant IA program needs in the midst of COVID-19.

Full transcript below: 

Marko: Hello, and welcome again, to ICF series of podcasts about the response and recovery to COVID-19. Thank you for joining us on our other podcasts. And we hope that this one will be as informative as we believe the others to have been. We're looking forward to providing even more down the road, as this crisis continues and the response on the recovery take hold.

Today, we're going to be speaking about Individual Assistance under the Federal Emergency Management Agency major disaster declaration.

At this point, more than three-quarters of the states and territories of the U.S. have received a major declaration from the president. That includes a number of programs, most of which we've talked about in the past under public assistance--which is the assistance that's provided to state and local governments to supplement funding, and to reimburse the costs for responding to emergency protective measures, police, fire, EMS, medical overtime, and other expenditures.

We've also discussed public health and the hospitals, and some of the funding that has become available through HHS, CDC, and the National Institute of Health.

Today, in talking about Individual Assistance, we're going to talk about how that program, while it is known as an individual benefit to citizens of the United States during disasters, we're going to talk about what that program is normally, and how it's being applied to this particular disaster. And at the same time, how FEMA is continuing to get creative about the use of the programs involved in individual assistance and funding it, and how the citizens of the U.S. can understand what they can be doing, and how our state and local partners can better utilize the resources that are being made available through it.

A quick update on public health assistance at the federal and local levels

But first, we want to give an update on where we are from a public health and medical perspective, and the latest from Health and Human Services. We're joined today, again, by Meghan Treber. Meghan is going to give us an update on where we are with regards to HHS, CDC, ASPR and how those programs are faring at this point in the event. Meghan, good morning and welcome.

Meghan: Good morning. Thanks, Marko. So, public health and health care officials are still struggling to gain control of disease spread. Individual hospitals and health care facilities are, obviously, focused on patient care, but that also involves larger questions of having and finding enough staff, having enough beds and equipment, and navigating a changing clinical presentation. Basically, learning about this disease while trying to treat people with the best available information at the time.

From the governmental perspective, state and federal health officials are focused on what they can do to support these facilities. So, community level planning and operations is focusing on continued social distancing, the establishment of alternate care sites--which are hospital-like facilities and shelters of opportunity to handle the expected or existing current surge of patients--purchasing and allocating personal protective equipment, purchasing some potential treatment regimens, ventilators, and other high-demand, low-availability materials.

Community-based testing is also still operating in many regions. They're also looking to help augment staffing needs and to address other barriers to care by issuing policy and guidance, and waiving regulations where it's appropriate and helpful.

There is still, as Marko mentioned, some confusion over what federal assistance is being used and for what activities, and the cost-share associated with these requests and purchases.

We are continuing to work through our contacts to get as much information as we can, but the best advice for the moment is to follow your established practices and have health care facilities reach out to health care coalitions and local emergency management agencies. And for those health care coalitions and local emergency management agencies to work up with the state emergency management and the public health departments to coordinate their needs.

Marko: Appreciate it, and certainly, we continue to look forward to updates as this progresses, and additional activities that HHS, ASPR, and CDC will be taking, which change on a daily basis. So, please make sure that you utilize the governmental resources and outreach that we've mentioned, that are available on the ICF website as links, in order to find out the latest about what's happening, regardless of when you're listening to this podcast.

What Individual Assistance means in the face of a pandemic

Today, as I mentioned, we're going to be talking about the individual assistance program. We have a couple of folks with us today who are experts and have long experience in FEMA programs, and especially around the Individual Assistance program. One is Kelly Wilson, the other is Marty Altman, who has joined us before in talking about federal disaster relief.

But one of the things we wanted to set the stage with was an understanding of, and some assistance with, what is Individual Assistance and why is it applicable here. To provide that little bit of an overview, I just wanted to take a moment or two to discuss it.

Most people in the country know Individual Assistance as the assistance that an individual homeowner or a renter can receive from the federal government, both from FEMA and others other agencies. Today, we want to talk a little bit more about the Individual Assistance program and what that means under the Federal Emergency Management Agency--how it's been used in the past, but more importantly, how it's being applied now, and how it could be applied as this event moves on.

Most people understand Individual Assistance as the program where they call the 800 number to register from FEMA or they dial up online, the online application, and work with their states in order to receive things like temporary housing repair money, low interest loans from the Small Business Administration, temporary housing support, sheltering, transitional sheltering assistance--many of those programs that are generated more along the lines of what you might see in a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, or a tornado, or a flood.

In this particular case, Individual Assistance takes on a slightly different role. The majority of what is a traditional Individual Assistance applicant's award or eligibility may not be applicable in this particular event, because we haven't seen damage to homes, specifically.

There may not be some other needs such as temporary sheltering, because we've been asked to shelter in place in our homes, etc. But there are some unique aspects to COVID-19 that are important to understand, and really, a lot of the potential uses come under what's called the "Other Needs Assistance" part of the FEMA Individual Assistance program.

What qualifies for “Other Needs Assistance” and how it fits into IA

Among those things is the pandemic unemployment assistance. Normally, we know it as the unemployment assistance that comes under the Individual Assistance program. But under COVID-19, pandemic unemployment has created a program for those that are not traditionally covered by normal unemployment insurance, those that are self-employed, independent contractors with limited work history.

What it does is it provides additional dollars, potentially up to $600 a week for regular recipients who do not traditionally get covered by unemployment. And that's for up to, potentially, four months--and then provides an additional 13 weeks of potential unemployment insurance for the state unemployment insurance once that expires.

So there are a lot of nuances to this, which actually increase or allow a greater series of benefits to individuals that are affected in unique ways beyond the normal unemployment insurance that a worker may receive from their employer as a result, and from their states.

The states manage these programs. The federal government is, actually, backing the cost of these additional unemployment insurance where states waive the one week waiting period to begin benefits. The idea is to get these dollars flowing into the states, and therefore, into the unemployment insurance provisions of each state, and how they're administered.

There's a lot more detail on how each state is administering these programs. Your state unemployment offices and emergency management folks will be able to provide you with direct understanding of how each state and the state that you live in is addressing the challenges.

And then there's also relief to employers that are part of this program under the IA program. The federal government is going to be reimbursing up to 50% of unemployment compensation paid by certain nonprofits, or governmental agencies, or Indian tribes between March 13th and December 31st of this year, that have opted out of, say, a state unemployment insurance program.

But the other major program that exists under the ‘Other Needs Assistance,’ which is in play now, is Crisis Counseling. Crisis Counseling assists individuals and communities in recovering from the psychological effects of disasters.

A closer look at the Crisis Counseling component 

Many different services happen in the Individual Assistance program under Crisis Counseling. Individual crisis counseling, basic or supportive educational contacts, group crisis counseling, public education, community networking and support, assessments, referrals and resource connections, distribution and development of education materials, and medium public service announcements that state and local governments are providing to their citizens. All of those are funded under the crisis counseling portion.

There are some conditions dependent on certain things, being the state and locals that are administering these programs need to consider a few things. Provide regular progress and financial reporting. They need to document the manner in which the program addresses the needs of their citizens and the affected populations, and the types of services that are being offered, and how those services are being coordinated with the services of other agencies, like voluntary agencies.

If there's training for project staff. And to make sure that there are detailed expenditure reports so that reimbursements can both be determined to be eligible, proper and expedited.

FEMA will do site visit, at least one site visit, during the grant period to make sure that our state and local partners are administering the program properly.

But those are some of the basic provisions of the Individual Assistance program that are at play here. What we really also want to do is talk about what else it can do, and what it might do in the future. And to that end, I'd like to introduce Kelly Wilson.

How SBA loans can augment IA, even (possibly) for personal losses

Kelly Wilson is ICF’s Disaster Management consultant, has 14 years of experience with FEMA Individual Assistance, and the public assistance program. And for many of those years, worked through disasters in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike, was an analyst supporting operations in the Louisiana recoveries Individual Assistance department, coordinated information pertaining to high profile swap out and sale of temporary housing units, oversaw many of the contracts and many of the services that were provided under site restoration, and provided Individual Assistance applicant services, among many other roles.

Kelly has a Master's in Business Administration and concentrations in management and marketing. Kelly, thank you, for joining us today, and appreciate an opportunity to chat with you about this.

Kelly: Thank you. Good morning, Marko.

Marko: Let me just start up by asking you an initial question. You know, we've talked a little bit upfront about housing needs and personal property, which may or may not actually apply in this case. But the IA program does provide assistance for other individual needs. Can you talk a little bit about that and how you're seeing that play out?

Kelly: Sure. So, normally, the FEMA IA program, as you mentioned, does provide assistance for one's housing and personal property needs that may have been damaged by disaster. One of the things the IA program also steps in to assist individuals or households with are the other needs such as medical expenses, dental, or even funeral expenses. Some of the things we've seen is that an individual or a household can be reimbursed for childcare expenses as well, or something, when a local disaster occurs and one might have to go out and purchase generator.

Those are some of the typical reimbursements that we see under the FEMA IA program. We also see, as you mentioned earlier, these programs that fall under the IA umbrella, where FEMA supports the states with additional funding for, as you mentioned, unemployment benefits or even crisis counseling.

One of the additional programs is FEMA does disaster case management, a little more in-depth review, and analysis, and assistance to those individuals and households that have applied. We also see the Small Business Administration as a huge player in the game with the Individual Assistance program, where usually it's a requirement for application, but it provides the opportunity for those who are eligible to apply for a small business loan to help cover their personal losses during a disaster.

Marko: When it comes to the SBA programs, I mean, SBA also has its own authority and its own auspices to provide these same low-interest loan programs. How is that working in conjunction with FEMA in this particular event, where certainly, there are a number of small businesses that have issues as a result of the closures, the workers certainly have their own issues? How is SBA going to play into this view over the next several months?

Kelly: So, what we're seeing right now is that SBA has stepped in for the COVID-19 pandemic and is starting to offer applications for small private businesses to apply, to help recover from losses that they've experienced from this pandemic.

What we have not seen yet, is that SBA has offered individuals the opportunity to apply for a personal loan to help cover their losses, or their financial downfalls from this actual pandemic. We can potentially look at FEMA and the IA program to possibly work with SBA, to make this potential application a future IA consideration of how the program would apply, where SBA could potentially step in and maybe offer individuals the chance at that same application for their financial situation.

Marko: Certainly, as this particular event evolves--and we've noticed in past disasters--that conditions change, where basically, declarations get amended, more programs and services are added. Do you think we'll see something similar as this plays out as well, as more needs are identified?

Kelly: I do, actually. You know, we do know that FEMA has not yet made a formal decision to enact the IA program in its traditional sense, FEMA IA with direct services, direct to an individual, or housing on their individual application. But with COVID-19 it's interesting, because we normally, with disasters, we don't have a home destroyed by a fire event, and we don't have personal property being destroyed by a flooding event.

But as you mentioned, we can start thinking about how these IA programs can potentially assist someone that is impacted by COVID-19. We do have people that are suffering financially and have additional expenses that they normally wouldn't have had if this pandemic didn't occur.

So, for example, we have with COVID-19, FEMA--as you mentioned--has enacted the public assistance program under those declarations. As you stated, what that does is that helps public entities receive funding for expenses that are beyond their normal operating expenses, with logistics and supplies, or manpower.

So, I think if we could apply this method of thinking to individuals and families, and use that thinking to bring in the IA program, and how we could service individuals and households beyond their normal operating expenses so to speak, so what expenses have they incurred as a direct result of this COVID-19 pandemic? Of course, FEMA would have to utilize a form of assessing these impacts on individuals and communities, and they would set up guidelines and procedures.

But if we could start thinking outside of the box, and how we can look at an individual situation and what expenses they are incurring that are beyond their normal expenditures, that's something where we can start in applying some of the applications for the IA program.

How COVID-19 will shape IA, going forward

Marko: Well, that's a great transition into where I certainly, want to continue to take this discussion today. Also, we'll bring in Marty Altman as well, who's our Vice President for Disaster Recovery at ICF. Marty, thank you, also, for joining us today.

Marty: Oh, thank you, for the invite, and being and participating in this discussion.

Marko: So, Marty and Kelly, one of the things that we are seeing, certainly, is a new look in many ways at the federal programs, with the Individual Assistance program. And Kelly, I'd like you to tackle this one first. What do you think COVID-19 will change in the way we traditionally see these programs, especially IA, in the future?

Kelly: I do. So, as we discussed right now, we do know that there are ways for the individual to seek assistance under the IA umbrella, with disaster unemployment or small businesses, and an individual with their small business could reach out to the SBA.

But what I'm hoping that we'll see in the future, and what I think that we will see within the coming weeks and months, is that programs such as crisis counseling will expand farther across state lines.

I also think that we're going to see the capabilities for voluntary agencies to step in and work with FEMA also expand[ing] across state lines. That could possibly include case management, if FEMA does open up the IA program with applications directly to individuals and households. This could lead to case management, as I mentioned earlier, and that potential to work case management with voluntary agencies to help extenuating circumstances for households.

One of the important things, as I mentioned, with SBA, since they're a huge player in the program--and we talked about a little bit earlier--is the opportunity for SBA to, maybe, provide temporary loans to individuals who have severe downfalls.

One of the interesting, and maybe one of the highly sensitive topics that involve this COVID-19 pandemic include those that have, unfortunately, incurred expenses for medical reasons, even funeral and burial costs. These types of expenses are often covered under the IA program, under normal disasters. We very well may see that FEMA may step in and offer these types of reimbursements to families directly affected by these expenses with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another consideration that we might take a look at, for the FEMA IA program to assist individuals and households, would be with possible direct financial assistance to those individuals or households that may have special circumstances with family members under heightened quarantine situations. Those with increased health risks, those needing special care, the elderly, or someone with a compromised immune system. Those households may have incurred additional expenses that they wouldn't normally have experienced under a situation other than the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, these could be examples of not-the-normal applications of FEMA under a traditional disaster, but something to include looking at how an individual or a household is affected by this virus pandemic, this COVID-19 situation.

Government coordination with the nonprofit community

Marko: Okay. Marty, let's bring you in at this point. I wanted to ask questions specifically around the fact that so far, the federal government's authorized under the individual assistance program, obviously, the state management disaster unemployment assistance, as well as crisis counseling support, which the states and locals will be administering directly.

The coordination that has to take place in order to manage those programs also involves the involvement of the private nonprofit community. How does--and how should--state and local governments be looking at coordinating the services of these private nonprofits that are part of the voluntary agencies in disasters? And how does that coordinate so that there's a one [inaudible 00:23:21] but also an avoidance of duplication of benefits?

Marty: That's a challenge that a lot of local government entities have, because taking this separation between the volunteer agencies and how it can be applied to setting off cost shares when the FEMA Public Assistance Program. There's a process that has to take place, and that process needs to be guided by proper documentation and tracking everything that takes place with that, including, you know, what are the activities that these agencies are doing, and how they can be reimbursed through a process with the locals.

Voluntary agencies are playing a very important role with this pandemic as it is right now, because it's taken a place that you can see it every day and reaching out to the communities. It's the voluntary agencies that's really helping the recovery process.

But the key to it all is documenting it all and seeing where they play into the program. Because when you're talking volunteer agencies, you have some states on a local level that has organizations that they call VOAD, that specifically addresses the individual assistant needs of the community, and it's helping them through the process, you know, especially when you get into counseling and looking at what the needs are for those individuals in that community, and how they could get through the whole process.

So, there's a key role. And the most important part of it is monitoring it, tracking it, and making sure they play in the right roles so that there isn't a duplication of benefits. Because duplication of benefits won't get reimbursed from FEMA. That's something that they monitor and watch strictly every day, as they go through the process. So, that's got to be monitored and tracked properly in order to ensure that there isn't a duplication of benefits.

FEMA’s potential role going forward, as a result of this pandemic

Marko: Kelly, one last question for you, and then I want to go back to Marty with one other. As you look at the future of the IA program, we've obviously, got a program that is certainly well established, has been around for a long time, has provided a tremendous amount of benefits within known categories and known activities. COVID is stretching that a little bit in applying those programs to this particular unique circumstance in many ways, traditionally, in some ways, non-traditionally.

Put a crystal ball on for a second and take a look down the road. Do you see the opportunity for a dialogue around increasing or changing the way IA is managed, or what's available through it? Given the fact that COVID-19 is the pandemic we're dealing with now--and the future pandemic--how do you think that'll play down the road?

Kelly: I do. I think that in the future, with the IA program as we're seeing right now, the way assistance is being provided is morphing and changing with every day, with every week. As we move forward, there's a lot of unforeseen. We can plan, FEMA can plan, agencies can plan, local governments can plan, but sometimes, some of the effects of something like this pandemic are unforeseen, and we may not be privy to know how much this is going to grow.

With that being said, I think that the IA program is looking at ways to potentially step in and offer assistance, particularly, financial assistance. Like we mentioned, we're seeing disaster unemployment, and we're seeing SBA with businesses. But I think as we talked about, with looking into the future on how the IA program can assist individual and households one-to-one directly, I think what we're going to be looking at is more direct financial assistance programs, because we don't have the traditional destroyed home or personal property.

I think it's something for FEMA to consider. I think FEMA has stepped in to play the role of the agency that is managing this actual pandemic that we're experiencing. I think FEMA is going to be forced to look at other opportunities for how their programs can touch on an individual's needs that may not be met, financially, through additional unemployment, or through SBA program.

I think they're going to have to look a little outside the box, as we talked about, with maybe helping directly with one-on-one expenses, with medical expenses, or possibly, those that might find themselves in a situation with housing losses, providing temporary housing assistance.

So, all of these are examples that the FEMA IA program can look to reaching in the future and start planning now on those potential situations that maybe financial assistance could help ease one's particular financial situation.

“Competing” emergencies as hurricane season ramps up

Marko: That's great. Thank you, Kelly. I appreciate it. Marty, one last question for you, just briefly. Let's talk about the fact that we are going to be entering into, not only spring storm season in the South, the East Coast, the Midwest, but right around the corner in a couple of months, is the beginning of hurricane season.

COVID-19 is not necessarily going to be over by then. We know that this is a longer-term event that will require support and assistance from our state and local partners for many months to come. But we're also now getting into the season where the traditional disasters that the United States face will be noticed and will be felt in addition to COVID-19, both stressing programs, resources, people, etc.

As the states are looking at their response to this, and as their planning continues, how should they be thinking in terms of the resource gaps that they need to fill? And what kind of planning can they be doing now in the midst of COVID-19, to be ready to handle an IA program say that does involve those other aspects because it's from a storm that's caused damage?

Marty: I think it's critical that they need to start planning now, you know. Especially with the pandemic involved now, it's going to change the way FEMA has to look at responding to a disaster. I mean, because now you've got another situation involved with the pandemic, which is also going to have a major impact on the individual assistance side of things.

Because now, you know, typically, when you have a tornado come through, or a hurricane come through, you see a lot of homes being destroyed, and everything else, and you've got to bring these people out.

So, you know, the locals are going to have to start working with the state emergency management offices and start looking at how are they going to respond to this? Because you're going to have to probably start setting up temporary sites for quarantine and everything else, with the pandemic going on at the same time, and then still responding to the disaster that came ashore.

You know, the biggest concern is the challenge of resources. And how are you going to do this? Because now you've got first responders that could be doing both things, and they could still be exposed to the COVID virus.

And so, it's going to be a challenge, and resources are going to be a challenge. And so, we have to begin preparing today and look at how we can respond to each and every one of those incidents. It could be co-mingled as we move forward.

Marko: Thank you, Marty. Appreciate it. With that, we'll close out this podcast with a reminder that, and thanks to all of our presenters, both Megan upfront, with the update, Kelly and Marty for discussing this important issue.

ICF is looking forward to continuing this dialogue. We've got a number of other podcasts under development to include insurance, what insurance is playing, what role it's playing here, where it's applicable and where it's not, community disaster loans, another program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that may or may not come into play for those communities that have had significant loss and significant challenges as a result of the shelter in place and the economy changes that COVID-19 has put on all of them.

Hospital and health assistance, as opposed to FEMA program. As HHS continues to develop the guidance, where are the crossovers with the FEMA programs? Where do they intersect? Where do they overlap? And how to understand the differences. As well, long-term hazard mitigation? How do we prevent or minimize the damage from future events? Future pandemics, how do we look at the applicability of using hazard mitigation funds that are available from FEMA as a result of this, other funding that's been available from other federal agencies in order to not just prepare for the next pandemic, but to have mitigate against those future effects, and a number of other topics.

I want to thank you, again, for joining us. We look forward to your feedback, additional questions, ideas for future topics. ICF is ready to support all of our federal, state and local and private sector clients and partners.

Please reach out to us at The podcasts are under Insights, as well as the materials that are linked to that site, for more information, more details.

Thank you, again, for joining us, and until next time.

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