When that tornado ripped through Alabama in late April, it turned Jonathan Stewart's house into a pile of rubble.
Soon afterward, an inspector from the Federal Emergency Management Agency came to the house--or what remained of it, anyway--in Pleasant Grove, near Birmingham, where Stewart, his wife Lisa, and their two kids live. The inspector took pictures and notes, as part of a process to allow the Stewarts to get help from the disaster relief agency.
But a few days later, Stewart received a letter from FEMA. "Based on your FEMA inspection, we have determined that the disaster has not caused your home to be unsafe to live in," the letter said. It informed Stewart that he didn't qualify for a FEMA grant--in part because his home had suffered "insufficient damage."
"Lisa and I looked at the letter and laughed," Stewart told the Birmingham News.
The Stewarts weren't alone. The home of Lashunta Tabb, who lives in a town nearby, had half its roof blown off and three damaged walls, and its siding stripped off. She said it's uninhabitable. But FEMA also turned her claim down, citing the same reason: insufficient damage.
"Although the disaster may have caused some minor damage, it is reasonable to expect you or your landlord to make these repairs," the letters received by both Tabb and the Stewarts said. "At this time you are not eligible for FEMA housing assistance."
FEMA has said that people who think they were incorrectly turned down for aid should appeal the decision. But it said that less than 1 percent of those declared ineligible had done so.
In fact, Stewart said he has since found out that his insurance coverage will replace his house, meaning he's ineligible for a FEMA grant anyway. But he added that he wonders how many other people there who might qualify for FEMA funds, but received that same "insufficient damage" finding, and abandoned the process in frustration.
FEMA has issued similarly head-scratching "insufficient damage" findings in response to several other recent disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Dolly, which ravaged Texas in 2008. A pending lawsuit charges that the agency improperly denied aid to thousands of poor farm workers whose homes were badly damaged by Dolly.
But some say FEMA is in a no-win position. After the 2004 Florida hurricanes and Hurricane Katrina, the agency came in for heavy criticism from both Congress's General Accounting Office and detractors in the press, for paying out money to people who shouldn't have qualified.
"In Katrina they lost so much money because they were not careful about payout," Clare Rubin, a disaster management consultant, told the News. "The GAO hit them hard."