FEMA knows disasters. Why aren’t they doing a better job in Eastern Kentucky?

Ryan C. Hermens/rhermens@herald-leader.com

There’s probably not a lot that Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear agree on, politically or otherwise.

But they are united on this — flood victims in Eastern Kentucky are not getting the help they so desperately need from the federal government in the wake of catastrophic flooding on July 28.

As Tessa Duvall wrote in a story on Thursday, “State Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, said in news release, he has received ‘countless phone calls from desperate eastern Kentucky residents’ outlining FEMA’s ‘alleged inaction, denials and an indication of surprisingly inadequate financial assistance to rebuild their homes and lives.’ “

Beshear has heard the same stories and concluded, “it’s not right.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell also announced Friday that he “spoke personally with President Biden, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Mayorkas, and Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) Administrator Criswell to advocate for increased aid. After hearing concerns from Eastern Kentucky residents and local officials during this week’s visits, Senator McConnell contacted FEMA Administrator Criswell again to encourage expedited assistance for Kentuckians impacted by flooding.”

Sometimes, it’s good to have one of the most powerful politicians in Washington on your side.

But if we are all on the same side here, what is the problem? FEMA administrators surely have enough experience — many decades — with catastrophic flooding to know that if someone’s house is completely flooded, they aren’t necessarily going to have the documents they need to prove they own it. They must know that people need help immediately, and lots of it. They must understand that $37,900 — the total cap for housing reimbursement — will no longer go very far in rebuilding a house from scratch these days.

And they must understand that if that help is not forthcoming in rebuilding, people will have to leave, further hurting the region.

Beshear said that FEMA will provide the governor with how many claims have been denied and why. That’s good information, but it doesn’t really help move things along. People who have lost their homes may not be in quite the mental framework to provide a legal case on why they need help — they just need help.

One of the reasons these situations are so frustrating is that we know the U.S. government can find money when they want to. Lots of it. We’ve already sent billions of dollars to Ukraine to help them from Russia’s aggression. Fine.

But if we can send that kind of aid to another country very quickly, then surely we can help people here? Yes, we all know that bureaucracy is opaque and complicated. We know there are processes in place. We know there are different pots of money. Yes, Kentucky officials need to do their part to make sure they are asking for the right things, and need to make sure that plans are in place for immediate and long-term help so that money is not wasted. But there must be a better way to do this.

One of the inspiring parts of this devastating flooding has been to see the immediate and overwhelming help from people in Kentucky and all over the country, who flocked to the region with supplies, cash and general help. That’s American exceptionalism for you. Now it’s time for the U.S. government to take a cue from the helpers and get to work.