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USA - FEMA flood program could violate civil rights law

An investigation by POLITICO's E&E News reveals discrimination against people of color and low-income households. But alleged civil rights violations would be difficult to prove in court.

Federal programs that have elevated thousands of U.S. homes above floodwaters may violate civil rights law by shutting out many homeowners who are Black or Hispanic or who have low incomes.

The Stafford Act, a 1988 federal law that authorizes the president to send state and local governments aid following disasters, requires that federal funds be spent equitably.

Yet E&E News revealed in a yearlong investigation published last month that the Federal Emergency Management Agency spent disproportionate amounts of money elevating homes in communities that are wealthy or overwhelmingly white. The pattern is largely the result of federal prerequisites that are biased against Black, Hispanic and low-income households.

“These policies are absolutely a violation of the Stafford Act’s nondiscrimination clause. There’s quite obviously a massive disparate impact on the basis of race, national origin and ethnicity,” said Madison Sloan, a lawyer and director of disaster recovery at Texas Appleseed, a racial justice group.

Advocates said FEMA could address the discrimination by revising how it decides whether a flood protection project makes financial sense — a process that favors expensive homes.

“FEMA should be prioritizing projects that protect the largest number of people and the largest number of homes, and not the homes that are worth the most,” Sloan said.

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