Rio Grande Valley Residents Sue FEMA Over Secret Rules for Disaster Assistance
Posted on July 15, 2021

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: JULY 15, 2021 
Contact:
Robert Elder, TRLA Communications Director | (512) 374-2764, relder@trla.org 
Dani Marrero Hi, LUPE Director of Advocacy and Communications | (956) 432-3193, danim@lupenet.org 

AUSTIN –It’s the multi-billion-dollar question: How does the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) decide to distribute funds to the victims of natural disasters like Texas Winter Storm Uri?

FEMA won’t say, which is a problem for people whose claims were denied and those who received far less than the cost of repairing their property. La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), an advocacy group involved in disaster recovery efforts in the Rio Grande Valley, wants to force FEMA rules into the open.

LUPE sued FEMA in U.S. District Court in Laredo on July 14, seeking an order directing the agency to disclose the rules and procedures it uses in determining disaster aid. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) represents LUPE. The lawsuit alleges that FEMA is violating the Freedom of Information Act by failing to publish all its procedural and substantive rules on its website.

In May, LUPE filed a FOIA request three months after Winter Storm Uri, which killed 136 people in Texas and caused at least $195 billion in damages. The organization asked FEMA to make publicly available the rules and standards that FEMA uses to determine whether families get federal assistance – and how much. 

When FEMA denies assistance, families can’t appeal unless they know which rules FEMA used to deny assistance. 

In the past two decades, at least 10 major disasters have been declared for the South Texas counties where LUPE members live. The most recent was the February winter storm, which President Biden declared a major disaster and made individual assistance available to families throughout Texas. 

LUPE has more than 8,000 members, almost all of whom are Hispanic.

“Members of La Unión del Pueblo Entero struggled through Winter Storm Uri as they desperately tried to protect their families from suffering,” said LUPE Executive Director Juanita Valdez-Cox. “They watched as the freeze caused devastating damage to their homes and their neighbors' homes. But the ultimate blow may have been when FEMA denied our members assistance without providing enough information to even understand the agency's reasons.”

According to the suit, FEMA’s published rules are general and provide few details about how FEMA makes its disaster assistance decisions.

The details – the information people can use to appeal FEMA decisions – are in a raft of secret binding rules that FEMA labels “Standard Operating Procedures,” “Inspection Guidelines,” and “Field Inspector Manuals,” among others.

FEMA also revises its unpublished rules from disaster to disaster.

While not available to the public, the rules matter greatly to communities trying to recover from a disaster. FEMA, its employees, and independent contractors use unpublished rules to decide which families get disaster assistance and how much.

Since 2008, LUPE has complained to FEMA through administrative and judicial proceedings that it and its members are harmed because FEMA refuses to publish the rules that it uses to decide eligibility for assistance.

In the wake of the winter disaster in Texas, the need for transparency is as urgent as ever, according to LUPE.

“If LUPE and our members had enough information to understand FEMA rules,” Valdez-Cox said, “we would be able to better navigate the process to ensure the Rio Grande Valley has access to badly needed recovery funds.” 

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid provides free legal services to people who cannot afford an attorney in 68 southwestern counties, including the entire Texas-Mexico border. TRLA attorneys specialize in more than 45 areas of law, including disaster assistance, family, employment, landlord-tenant, housing, education, immigration, farmworker, and civil rights. Our hotline is open from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (CST) Monday – Friday: (888) 988-9996.  



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