As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus mounts, President Donald Trump has yet to free up a pool of disaster relief funding specifically intended to help families cover burial costs.
Approximately 30 states and territories have requested the funding as the pandemic spreads across the country and struggling families ask for help burying their dead. The funding is part of the wide array of “individual assistance” programs handled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help disaster victims. But Trump has sharply limited what kinds of assistance FEMA can provide, and the agency has told states their requests are “under review” or only agreed to pay for counseling services for their residents.
Often in disasters, the federal government steps in to reimburse families for funeral expenses. FEMA offered funeral assistance after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. The amount varies, but a September 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office found that FEMA paid about $2.6 million in response to 976 applications for funeral costs of victims of three 2017 hurricanes, or an average of about $2,700 per approved application.
But with the coronavirus, the funding stream has remained closed, despite calls from politicians including New York Democrats Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. At least 58,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States, and those deaths are coming as tens of millions of people deal with lost jobs.
In response to questions, FEMA stated that the decision on which programs to fund is in Trump’s hands.
“The approval of programs in response to a disaster declaration request is made at the discretion of the President,” a FEMA spokesperson said.
On April 28, Trump issued a memorandum authorizing crisis counseling assistance through FEMA, but noted that the order “shall not be construed to encompass any authority to approve other forms of assistance.” That language effectively bars FEMA from granting states other forms of aid.
A spokeswoman for the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, Rachel Semmel, referred questions to FEMA, saying “Individual Assistance is within FEMA’s area of responsibility.” White House spokesmen Devin O’Malley and Judd Deere did not respond to questions.
Craig Fugate, a former FEMA administrator during the Obama administration, said OMB plays a key role in deciding what funding is released during disasters.
“What gets turned on in a disaster is based on FEMA’s recommendations, but the White House has a heavy influence on what that is,” Fugate said. “FEMA does not have the independent ability to turn on the programs at will.”
The lack of federal aid for burial costs has left people like Sufian Nabhan to figure out solutions. As executive director of the Islamic Center of Detroit, Nabhan helps the large Muslim community in southeastern Michigan arrange family burials in accordance with religious traditions. He estimates that his center has lost about two dozen people so far. In about a third of the deaths, families have struggled to pay costs averaging about $5,000.
On Monday, Nabhan had another painful conversation about burial expenses with the relative of a new coronavirus victim.
“I felt he wanted to tell me something, but he’s hesitant,” Nabhan said. “You feel it, they are shy.”
Nabhan said he asked the man if the family could pay for the funeral and learned it was raising money online through GoFundMe. Nabhan told him to focus on grieving his loss and that the Islamic center would cover whatever the family could not.
Nabhan said he feels the federal government should step in to help these families.
“Everyone is grieving right now, everyone is feeling not safe, everyone is feeling stressed,” Nabhan said. “They lost a loved one and then they’re going to worry about covering the cost of the burial? I think it’s too much.”
GoFundMe sites that have sprung up in the crisis show the shortfalls many families are facing. Family and friends of Devin Francis, a 44-year old radiology technician in Miami who was about to get married when he died of COVID-19 in early April, raised $4,300 of its $5,000 GoFundMe goal. Other posts cite burial costs for a father and son in New York who both died of the disease, and a chef in Chicago.
Mark Neveau, a former FEMA presidential appointee who worked on the federal response on Long Island during Sandy, said there’s a critical need for federal assistance. To prevent further spread of the virus, patients often die alone without their families around them, he said, and that makes it hard for everyone.
“We’ve not seen that before in this country. To have the federal government pay for funeral[s] is an appropriate thing,” he said, especially since communities of color and less affluent families are disproportionately affected by the virus.
Samantha Montano, a professor of emergency management at the University of Nebraska, said FEMA and the White House have the authority to implement the programs and the need for funeral aid is particularly obvious in hard-hit areas like New York, Louisiana and Michigan.
FEMA grants assistance from its Disaster Relief Fund, which has been funded by Congress in recent years at levels ranging between $7 billion and $13 billion. The fund got an extra boost of $45 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Federal aid to states is triggered when Trump approves their request for a Major Disaster Declaration, which jump-starts various kinds of assistance under the Stafford Act. Trump has approved the disaster declaration requests, but not the requests for the specific types of assistance.
Typically, FEMA has a limited number of assistance requests — for a handful of counties in a state struck by flooding or tornadoes, for instance. But with the pandemic, every state and U.S. territory has sought federal help, and for the first time ever, as of April 17, all of them are under a major disaster declaration and eligible for significant aid.
“We’ve never had anything like this event before in U.S. history,” said Patrick Roberts, a scholar at the RAND Corp. who researches disaster preparedness. “This is an exceptional event that FEMA hasn’t had to prepare for before.”
The demand is coming months before hurricane season and the anticipated peak in wildfire activity, when calls for FEMA aid will spike again.
Under FEMA’s aid programs, states may request money for individual assistance, which includes unemployment assistance, crisis counseling and funeral reimbursements. If the Trump administration granted all the aid requested for coronavirus relief, the costs could quickly run into the billions.
More than two dozen states and territories have asked for the full suite of individual assistance programs, according to FEMA documents reviewed by ProPublica, while others have stopped short of asking for everything but still requested significant help.
Rhode Island requested all types of individual assistance from FEMA in late March, including funeral reimbursement. Armand Randolph, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency and head of the agency’s recovery branch, said the state’s thinking was informed by the unpredictability of the pandemic, which is still little understood by scientists and continues to infect thousands each day.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen, so let’s throw everything in,” Randolph said. “Why short ourselves, saying ‘We don’t need this, we don’t need that’?”
FEMA responded two days later and said the request was “under review.”
“I’m being optimistic,” Randolph said. “They didn’t say no yet, so I’m going to keep trying.”
Rebecca Clark, communications manager for Illinois’ Emergency Management Agency, said in an email that the state is still waiting for a verdict on its request for funeral assistance as part of a larger package. “Unfortunately, while there are deadlines for the state to meet in order to qualify for this assistance, there are no such deadlines for the federal government to respond to the state’s request,” she wrote.
North Dakota officials have heard from FEMA that “there is so much federal funding created through the CARES Act, and so many different federal programs currently available,” that the agency is considering pushing out its assistance only to address “any gaps in coverage,” said Justin Messner, recovery chief at the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, via a spokesman.
The four pandemic bills that Congress has passed so far have expanded food aid, funded testing for the uninsured, increased Medicaid coverage and boosted unemployment assistance, among other provisions. Some elements are similar to aid that FEMA provides, but the bills do not include burial cost reimbursement.
If Trump authorizes funeral assistance through FEMA, the funds will be just enough to cover the essentials of burial or cremation, Neveau said. He pointed to the urgency of the situation, citing the mass burials in New York City, where people whose bodies aren’t claimed, or whose families can’t afford burials, are being interred on Hart Island at several times the usual rate.
“We’re seeing people buried in wooden boxes,” he said. “That’s somebody’s loved one.”
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Clarification, April 29, 2020: This story was updated to clarify the nature of Illinois' request for funeral assistance.