FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Gov. Andy Beshear complained Thursday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is denying too many requests for assistance in flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky, and urged those getting turned down to take their cases directly to agency representatives in the region.
Offering the mantra of “appeal, appeal and appeal,” Beshear told people applying for disaster aid: ”Number one, do not give up. Number two, if you’re denied, go and look these people in the eye.”
A FEMA spokesman later said the agency “will get this right,” acknowledging the “bureaucracy can be frustrating.” Agency personnel are meeting with residents to help with applications for aid and documentation submissions, the spokesman said.
Beshear accompanied President Joe Biden during a visit to the stricken Appalachian region Monday, when the president declared the federal government would provide support until residents were back on their feet. The governor said Thursday he was grateful for the swift federal response to the catastrophic flash flooding late last month and the deployment of FEMA officials. Surging waters swept away homes, inundated communities and led to at least 38 deaths.
But the Democratic governor flatly said "we need to see better outcomes” for more eastern Kentuckians applying to FEMA for recovery assistance.
“Too many people are being denied," Beshear said at a news conference. “Not enough people are being approved. And this is the time that FEMA’s got to get it right. To change what has been a history of denying too many people and not providing enough dollars and to get it right here.”
FEMA Press Secretary Jeremy Edwards later responded that agency officials will be in the flood-stricken region “as long as it takes” to help Kentuckians recover.
“We know these are incredibly difficult times, and we want to help you," Edwards said in a statement. "We will continue to work to ensure that every eligible applicant receives every dollar of assistance legally possible.”
The governor, who is running for reelection next year, has experience shepherding disaster recovery. Last December, deadly tornadoes devastated several western Kentucky towns.
Beshear said he didn’t yet have figures reflecting the percentage of aid applications being denied by FEMA in eastern Kentucky. The agency has promised those numbers, he said, along with data showing why people were denied.
The governor and a Kentucky lawmaker from the hard-hit region offered examples of people in dire straits being denied assistance or offered inadequate aid.
“I talked to somebody whose 82-year-old grandmother was told at a site visit that everything was OK ... only to get denied later that night through an email," Beshear said. "It’s not right.”
Kentucky state Sen. Brandon Smith said Thursday that he's heard from constituents who said they were denied or offered a “grotesquely inadequate amount” to rebuild. One family reaching out to his office said they were offered $8,000 for their losses, the Republican lawmaker said.
“To me, that means the federal government has decided the total value of this families’ livelihood, literally everything they have to their name, is only worth $8,000,” he said in a statement.
Some families are staying in tents on their property, unable or unwilling to leave for temporary housing for fear of looting, Smith said.
The governor criticized the application process, saying flood victims were being denied assistance when lacking necessary documents. Beshear said he conveyed his concerns to Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and top FEMA administrators.
“I’m hearing from the very top levels that they fully agree,” the governor said of his concerns. “And from the people on the ground, I was talking to them yesterday, they want to provide help. Something in the middle is problematic.”
Edwards, the FEMA press secretary, said the agency's leadership is working to “reduce barriers and cut red tape.”
“If you were denied assistance, that is not necessarily the end of the road," Edwards said. “Something as simple as a missing document can cause an application to be deemed ineligible. The system isn’t perfect, and we know that the bureaucracy can be frustrating."
FEMA is calling applicants to “help them get back on the road to recovery,” Edwards said. The agency is encouraging anyone initially denied assistance to contact FEMA again or visit an area Disaster Recovery Center to meet with FEMA personnel about their application, the spokesman said.
During his news conference, Kentucky's governor said he's “still hoping that FEMA gets this right.” Beshear added he's hearing too many examples from "people that I know and trust, talking to me about too many stories that just aren’t right” in reaching out to FEMA.
Beshear's frustration boiled over as he spoke of the grandmother rescued from her vehicle as it was being swept away by floodwaters, only to face obstacles in obtaining assistance.
“Her house, already gone," he said. "Her vehicle now gone. All she’s got is what’s on her. And you’re going to say she doesn’t qualify, for what? If you’re going to deny somebody because they don’t, say, have the deed of their house on them ... We can replace it. Let’s not deny them. Let’s give them the opportunity to get the paperwork that they need.”