Oregonian Wildfire Victims Still Struggling; FEMA Unhelpful

Though Corvallis was not directly affected by the 2020 wildfires, fellow Oregonians are continuing to struggle, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is not helping everyone. In fact, 57% of the 24,000 Oregonian applications for federal disaster assistance from the 2020 fires were denied.  

Jefferson Public Radio spoke to one victim of the wildfires, Maria Meunier, who lives with her adult son. They lost their home in the Almeda Fire but were denied funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because, according to the letter she received from them, Meunier could not “prove” that she “lived in the damaged home at the time of the disaster.”  

However, Meunier has lived in the house and has been paying rent, mortgage, and property taxes since 2012.   

Meunier is not alone. 14,000 Oregonians were denied assistance after the 2020 wildfires, and 290 have appealed FEMA’s denials, but only 40 of those were approved.   

FEMA has been known to deny many others assistance in other natural disasters. It denied about 60% of Puerto Rican disaster assistance applicants after Hurricane Maria and denied a quarter of disaster applicants after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.   

For the situation of Hurricane Harvey, people whose annual incomes were below $15,000 had a 46% denial rate, while those with annual incomes exceeding $70,000 had a 10% denial rate. Currently, JPR has a pending data request with FEMA to receive income and demographic information about Oregonian applicants affected by the 2020 wildfires.   

Despite all of these denials, FEMA actually encouraged Oregonians after the wildfires to appeal and even claimed that the appeals process could be easy. However, disaster victim advocates and legal aid attorneys have said that the FEMA appeals process can be quite difficult. They also said that by denying people aid the first time they apply, FEMA is gradually discouraging people from the process as they get more frustrated and disheartened.   

This difficult process often most negatively affects low-income citizens, who do not have access to resources like lawyers. Oregon, since it does not have many intensely destructive natural disasters, does not have a lot of experienced private and nonprofit attorneys to help in these types of situations.   

FEMA’s denial letters are also commonly unclear, which can be confusing to those who receive them. Additionally, for those who speak other languages, help is not as accessible. For Meunier, who primarily speaks Spanish, she had an English-speaking representative at FEMA use a translator to help her rather than speak directly to a Spanish-speaking person.   

On top of these issues, FEMA’s automated data verification process can be problematic for those with unconventional living conditions (for example, living in someone’s garage or spare bedroom), for those with Spanish names that are Anglicized or misspelled, and for those with hyphenated last names. It can also be difficult for families with parents who are undocumented with children who are U.S. citizens.  

Mobile homeowners also have more difficulty receiving aid. They have to provide months-long proof that they paid space rent, and they have to provide a copy of their lease agreement and title.    

Many who fell victim to the wildfires in Oregon in 2020 are still struggling. To help, consider donating to the Salvation Army, which is providing relief and resources across the state for those affected by the fires.   

By Cara Nixon