That luck ended with Michael, a Category 5 hurricane that slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2018. It leveled Mexico Beach. Nearly every building was destroyed or unlivable. In the aftermath, there was no power grid, no sewage, no water lines. No police station, no fire station.
Cathey, surveying the wreckage, didn’t have the first clue what to do. “No one here, including myself, had ever dealt with a disaster of that magnitude,” he tells me.
The US prepares for natural disasters by pooling large sums of money in the Federal Emergency Management Agency — a rainy day fund in case of devastation. In theory, to get help, all you have to do is ask for it.
Within 10 days of the storm, Cathey had been able to speak with then-Governor Rick Scott, then-FEMA administrator Brock Long, and then-President Donald Trump. He figured that meant things were going to move in the right direction and that money to rebuild Mexico Beach would show up without too much trouble. “I thought we’d say, ‘Hey, here’s what happened — here’s what it looked like yesterday, and here’s what it looks like today.’ And we’d get a check,” Cathay says. “But then the dust cleared and reality set in.” FEMA wasn’t just going to hand over its money.
Enter: Alyssa Carrier, the founder and CEO of AC Disaster Consulting. Her name was on a list of names the state of Florida gave to Mexico Beach when they asked for help. “I got a call from the city manager about three days after the storm,” Carrier says. She’s spent the four years since overseeing the efforts to make sure they get the money they need from FEMA to rebuild their town.
Carrier and her group are part of a cottage industry of third-party consultants that drop into communities after disasters to help them navigate the vast bureaucracy at FEMA, which is set up to distribute aid to communities and can reject requests if the forms aren’t filled out perfectly. They’re like accountants but for a hurricane. They know all the rules and regulations, and they help with the paperwork. Places like Mexico Beach need them — because if they don’t dot their i’s and cross their t’s exactly as FEMA says they’re supposed to, the agency can decline to give them the money they need to rebuild.
The complexity — and high stakes — is why states, cities, and other groups that get hit by disasters turn to consultants. Most local governments don’t have robust emergency management departments staffed with people who have experience with FEMA. And the rules are constantly shifting: there are changes with each new presidential administration, and the pandemic added another layer of complexity. It’s nearly impossible for communities, especially those dealing with their first disaster, to work through the FEMA process on their own.
And it’s only gotten harder over the past decade. Disasters are getting more frequent and more severe as a result of climate change, and they’re hitting more places that don’t normally experience them. At the same time, FEMA has become stricter — the Office of the Inspector General warned the agency in 2016 that it wasn’t following its own rules closely enough, and in the years since, emergency managers and consultants say FEMA has become more likely to decline a project on a technicality than it used to.
Mayor Cathey learned all of this the hard way. He’s spent the past few years sitting in on conference calls, seething, while Carrier and her team walk through the slow, painstaking work. “We’re doing all their reimbursement for FEMA, helping them through the process,” Carrier says.
Cathey doesn’t like it. But he doesn’t have to like it. “FEMA’s got at least 200 acronyms for everything they do,” he says. “I rely on those people because regardless of what I think, the process is the process. And FEMA holds the checkbook.”
Alyssa Carrier has worked in disaster response for almost two decades. She got a degree in emergency management from the University of North Texas, which had the first such program in the country — and graduated two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Carrier went right to work for FEMA.
At that point, the agency had only been in existence for less than 30 years. President Jimmy Carter established FEMA in 1979, and in 1988, Congress passed the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. The Stafford Act laid out the existing framework for disaster response in the US: presidents declare disasters, and then FEMA springs into action to coordinate response and aid.
Carrier was employed by FEMA for a while, then left to work at a consulting agency. Then she went back to FEMA for a few years before returning to consulting. That sort of revolving door between the agency and private groups is common, Carrier says — people go in and out, in and out.
Despite all that experience, the situation in Mexico Beach was particularly tough. “They were still doing search and rescue in the city,” Carrier says. They were finding bodies — the storm killed 25 people in Florida. There was no phone, no internet. But there was still a long list of FEMA rules to follow. President Trump issued a federal disaster declaration the day after Hurricane Michael made landfall. Then, designated states, cities, and local communities could access assistance from FEMA through the public assistance program, which has funding to remove debris, rebuild roads, and fix critical infrastructure after a disaster.
But communities don’t just get the money. There are dozens of rules around what’s eligible and how communities can use that money. The Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide is 276 pages long. Procurement — the process of finding contractors or other experts to do the disaster cleanup work — tends to be the messiest part. “Communities think they can just use their trash guy to pick up the storm debris,” Carrier says. “FEMA isn’t going to accept that.”
They have to let different groups bid on contracts for various projects, like reconnecting power. It was a particular challenge in Mexico Beach — there wasn’t any internet to let them send out contracts to fix the internet. “How do you get bids when you can’t even get something out?” Carrier says.
FEMA is, in theory, complicated for a reason. Its labyrinth of rules is there to curb fraud and to make sure that local governments are using taxpayer money appropriately. But a laser focus on fraud prevention sometimes leads to the agency spending as much or more on documentation and reviews as the project itself should cost. “FEMA will spend thousands of dollars writing a project worksheet for $250 of eligible costs,” says Ben Rose, recovery and mitigation section chief at Vermont Emergency Management. “It’s not seeing the forest for the trees.”
And it also makes the process nearly impossible to navigate alone, particularly for cities and small towns that have never dealt with disasters before. Most don’t have any in-house emergency management experts who understand even the basics of the process. Some states, like Vermont, usually send in their own teams from emergency management departments to help cities and towns with the FEMA process. They only use consultants as force multipliers during really, really big disasters. Others, like Oregon, rely on them more often because the state just can’t maintain the level of staffing required.
That layers on additional costs for communities and, by extension, FEMA — which is well aware of the role consultants play in the public assistance program. It even pays for them: the towns, counties, or other groups applying for public assistance funding can use up to 5 percent of any grants for management costs. Still, FEMA used to be a bit dismissive toward consultants, Carrier says. That’s changed over the past few years. “It’s much more like, let’s work together,” she says. “The industry has always kind of existed to help expand state and local resources during a disaster and after a disaster.”
People like Carrier are the ones keeping tabs on the ways FEMA rules shift from presidential administration to administration — each president appoints their own FEMA administrators, and they can have different priorities. The Trump administration redirected some funding from the Disaster Relief Fund toward ICE, for example, and removed mentions of climate change from FEMA plans. The specifics of the Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide change every few years as well.
Consultants make sure the paperwork is done correctly and in the right order. “Especially medium-sized cities can get overwhelmed very, very quickly after a disaster,” says Matt Hochstein, vice president of client services at emergency management consulting firm Hagerty Consulting. It’s even tougher in rural communities with few resources, where consultants can be the only way for leadership to connect with FEMA and coordinate aid. “We oftentimes have to lend a laptop or a printer so that they can actually access the information they need,” says Ryan Frykholm, a consultant with Municipal Disaster Consultants.
The consultants are the go-between, helping local governments — overwhelmed by what’s often their first disaster — know what to expect from the federal agency. “We always say, ‘Are you going to let the IRS do your taxes for you?’” says Susan Boynton-Frykholm, also with the New York-based Municipal Disaster Consultants. “Why do you need an accountant to help you do your taxes? Shouldn’t we all be able to do our taxes? But things get complex.”
Consultants can also be the main source of institutional knowledge around an individual disaster. That’s the case at Mexico Beach, Carrier says — there’s been turnover on both sides. “We’re on something like our eighth FEMA representatives for the city of Mexico Beach,” she says. “And Mexico Beach is on its fourth city administrator.”
Not all consultants, though, have the same type of background as someone like Carrier. After a disaster, groups like accounting and engineering firms — who might be working on some aspects of a disaster recovery — claim that they can help manage the FEMA process. That tends not to go well, according to Frykholm. “They’re looking at everything from the dollars and cents,” he says. Without a good understanding of eligibility rules, all that work isn’t worth anything. “It just means there’s going to be a clawback coming — and whose fault is that?”
Because what FEMA gives, it can just as easily take away.
The threat of a clawback or not getting money in the first place is always hanging over Mayor Cathey. FEMA can agree to distribute money but then take it back if the community doesn’t follow the rules and procedures to the letter. Cathay doesn’t like that. He doesn’t think it’s a good way to deal with a disaster. “If you’re here to help us, well, don’t threaten us with deobligation,” he says.
Mexico Beach needs the money: it has an annual budget of around $1 million, and Michael did $280 million in damage. That’s why, on conference calls and during meetings, he tries to keep quiet and let the experts — Carrier and her team — do most of the talking.
It’s a risk for a small town to go through the public assistance process alone. If they make a mistake, it can cost them. Public assistance is a reimbursement program: most of the time, cities are getting back money that they’ve already spent.
If FEMA says no, communities have limited options. They can file an appeal. If that appeal is denied, they can file a second appeal or — if the amount in question is over $500,000 (or $100,000 in rural areas) — go before the Civilian Board of Contract Appeals. That’s the end of the line. “FEMA is the judge and the jury,” says Rose, the chief at Vermont Emergency Management.
Unsurprisingly, the appeals process is complicated, too. Even Vermont, with its experienced state-level staff, wasn’t able to handle appeals on its own when it ran into issues after Tropical Storm Irene. “The state of Vermont ended up filing upward of 30 appeals,” Rose says. “The consultants taught us how to do that.”
Even getting a project approved isn’t total protection. Projects can be audited by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and if the rules weren’t followed properly, FEMA can decide to deobligate the funds — to take the money back.
The Cimarron Electric Cooperative in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, caught the wrong end of that in 2016. The nonprofit, which provides electricity to nine counties in the state, had its power lines and other systems damaged during a 2013 winter storm. FEMA awarded the organization $69.2 million to fix the damages. But toward the end of the process, the group got a call that it was going to be audited by the OIG.
The cooperative thought it had done everything right. It worked with the state and followed instructions from the state’s office of emergency management. But over the course of the project, the federal regulations changed, says Mark Andrews, the now-senior vice president of finance and administration at the cooperative.
The audit, then, found that Cimarron didn’t follow FEMA’s procurement rules and used noncompetitive contracts for the work when it wasn’t supposed to. The OIG recommended that FEMA take back $51.2 million in grant funding.
“That was gut-wrenching,” Andrews says.
Cimarron didn’t end up having to give the money back — the regulations had changed in the middle of the process, and the group had been following instructions from the state, so FEMA let the funding stay. But the cooperative is now more careful about any procurement rules. The area had another ice storm in 2020, and Andrews says the team is once again going through the FEMA grant process. This time, though, they’re not doing it alone.
“We’ve hired a third-party consultant,” he says.
A growing web
It’s been four years since Hurricane Michael, and Mexico Beach is starting to recover — slowly. The debris is gone, the Driftwood Inn is back open, and houses are being rebuilt. It has new, tougher building codes. There’s a bank and a gas station. But the city still doesn’t have its pier or its civic center back.
And it still doesn’t have a fire station. The former site was in one of the lowest-lying parts of the city, and it took on around 10 feet of water during the storm. The city’s fire chief, Sandy Walker, lives in Panama City. Right after the storm died down, Walker — who’s originally from Ireland and landed in Florida by way of the Bahamas — started making his way slowly back toward Mexico Beach. It took him around 12 hours to pick his way there, through fallen power lines, trees, and smashed-up houses.
“As you got closer and closer to Mexico Beach, the destruction got worse and worse,” he says.
When Walker finally made it to the fire station, he found a complete mess. Everything had fallen out of the kitchen cabinets. The sewage lines had backed up into the building. A toolbox that was originally in the engine bays had smashed right through an office door.
In the immediate aftermath, the fire department shared a temporary office unit with the police department. “My guys slept behind Red Cross blankets as the only division between them and the next guy,” Walker says. Eventually, the city scraped together some money to retrofit part of the public works building into a temporary spot for the fire department. It’s functional, if not ideal. All the fire trucks sit together in one garage bay. “It’s a little bit of musical chairs to get the right one out,” Walker says.
Because they had a place to be, the new firehouse fell down the list of priorities. And when it eventually came time to get a new house in place, the city ran into an issue: FEMA wanted it to rebuild the firehouse in the exact same spot it was originally. “If another storm hit, it would be wiped out,” Carrier says.
The agency offered to put floodgates around the station to protect against any future storms. But that wouldn’t help much, Walker says. “All that means is we would be a dry island surrounded by water,” he says. “It made no sense.”
FEMA evaluates each new project by first looking at repair costs in a new location and then comparing that to the benefits and costs of relocating, Melanie Barker, an external affairs specialist in FEMA Region 4 (which contains Florida), told The Verge in an email. “Relocation of the Mexico Beach fire station is currently being evaluated,” Barker said.
Carrier pointed to FEMA’s new centralized regional offices as one possible reason for the issues around the fire station. The agency used to send staff directly to disaster sites, which had some of its own problems — hotel rooms and rental cars are usually already in short supply after a disaster. But now, FEMA only sends a handful of staff to the sites. The rest of the paperwork gets sent back to Consolidated Resource Centers (CRCs).
“The problem that we have now seen from that is that the people at the CRCs don’t know the communities,” Carrier says. Instead, information is sent back and forth through a paperwork-heavy game of telephone, and the nuance of a community — like the pitfalls of rebuilding a firehouse in that spot — can get lost.
The agency is well aware of its own complexity. Back in 2018, when it set out its strategic plan for the next four years, one of the main goals was to “reduce complexity.” Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, says that didn’t quite work out.
“I think a lot of us got kind of a chuckle out of that. It’s a strategic plan, and strategic plans should be lofty, but this one was overambitious,” he says. “We certainly didn’t see a lot of progress in terms of reducing the complexity.”
If anything, the public assistance process has only gotten more byzantine over the past few years, experts say. The agency set up a digital portal to streamline the process of submitting public assistance grants. But it’s an undertaking to train local officials — who might have six other jobs — in that tool. “You have to upload every document and do them in a certain order,” Carrier says. “It can be hard to follow if you don’t understand the process to begin with. And one of the issues is, if you don’t do everything in order, you’ll get kicked back out and have to start all over again.”
FEMA is assessing the public assistance program with a focus on simplification, Jeremy Edwards, FEMA press secretary, said in an email to The Verge. “FEMA continues its ongoing efforts and initiatives to simplify and streamline the public assistance program,” he said.
But experts say FEMA also seems to be getting stricter with how it applies its own rules around what’s eligible for public assistance funding and around the rules cities and local governments have to follow to get that funding. Some of that is likely because of pressure from the various oversight agencies, like OIG, that come in and double-check the agency’s work. In 2016, the OIG released a report saying that FEMA wasn’t doing enough to make sure that groups receiving public assistance grants were sticking to procurement guidelines. They followed up with a similar report in 2021. “After another report like this, Public Assistance Recipients and Subrecipients should expect FEMA to take an even firmer stance on requiring compliance with procurement regulations,” wrote Michelle Zaltsberg, an attorney specializing in disaster recovery, in a blog post.
All of that oversight colors FEMA’s decisions. “Too often, FEMA prioritizes or looks through the lens of avoiding audit findings, avoiding Inspector General reports, and avoiding waste, fraud, and abuse complaints,” Phelps says. “And then like third or fourth on the list of what they try to do is help survivors.”
None of this is relieved by the growing frequency of disasters pulling the agency — and its money — in all directions. The amount distributed through public assistance funding has gone up for the past three years. There are no restrictions to the program based on dollar amounts; how much money gets spent is purely based on what’s eligible for the program. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the changing climate meant things like wildfires and hurricanes were appearing more frequently and in places where they may not have hit before. Before around 2015, Oregon used to average a federal disaster every 17 or 18 months, Phelps says. Since 2015, they’ve averaged a disaster declaration every seven or eight months — more than twice as often.
That leads to FEMA almost acting more as an insurance company that only pays out money when it has to than an agency providing aid, Phelps says. The first priority often seems to be making sure the paperwork is perfect.
That confluence of factors has created more and more room for disaster consultants. If FEMA’s focus is going to be on the letter of the law, cities need people in their court who can respond with the same militant attention to detail. It’s a lucrative line of work. FEMA will usually reimburse $155 an hour, considering that “reasonable,” but some consultants charge far more. Some have asked communities for more than $400 an hour.
And Carrier says the industry is growing: large consulting firms have added FEMA to their lists of services, as have engineering firms. When disasters hit an area, smaller companies often pop up offering services. AC Disaster Consulting had 20 employees in January 2020. Now, Carrier says, it has 130 employees. “It’s just happening so much more,” she says.
It should, theoretically, be possible to take some steps to simplify the public assistance process, says Rich Serino, a fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and former deputy administrator at FEMA. That’d have the knock-on effect of centering recovery, rather than bureaucracy, as the main priority. “Make it easier for the survivor and not easier for the folks in offices at the federal government,” he says.
Paperwork could be pared down only to what’s absolutely needed. There should be ways to safeguard taxpayer money without routing people through a dozen departments with contradicting rulebooks. It would, incidentally, eliminate the regulatory snarls that make the extra expense of consultants necessary — a simpler process would be easier for a small town to handle on its own. Even Carrier, whose job relies on complexity, says there could be simplifications.
“Is there waste, fraud, and abuse? Absolutely — you see it in every disaster,” Phelps says. Sometimes, groups get funding even when policies are applied incorrectly or the forms weren’t used in the right way. Sometimes, it might be nefarious. But most of the time, it probably happens because of inexperience or because people are trying to move quickly in the face of a historic hurricane or catastrophic fire.
It’s frustrating because the amount of money involved is fairly small, at least compared to other federal programs, Phelps says. “Especially when you look through the lens of the urgency of these funds and how quickly communities need these dollars to get back on their feet. The impact of delays can really have years-long impacts on how quickly a community can recover.”
The delays eat at Mayor Cathey. He’s out in the streets of Mexico Beach talking to the people who live there. “I see what we don’t have. I see the mess that we’re in,” he says. “If the cart’s in the ditch, my plan is, how do I get it out? I don’t have the time or the money or the energy to get three committees together to look at it.”
One problem is off his plate — there was movement on the issue with the firehouse in July, and it’ll be rebuilt on a new lot where the city also plans to put a civics center, says Mexico Beach city administrator Doug Baber. It’ll be a relief for Sandy Walker, too. “We’ll be able to get back to some sense of normality and train on a regular basis,” he says. Firefighters will also be able to respond more quickly to disasters: instead of being stacked in, their fire engines will be in a normal side-by-side arrangement. “That lets us get it out of there as quickly as possible,” he says.
Cathey credits Carrier with the forward momentum of all of the projects at Mexico Beach. It’s the only thing that made the clock move. Without consultants, he says the town would likely be sitting with nothing. It wouldn’t have been possible to recover from the disaster without them. But despite being grateful for that help, he still thinks a big bulk of the process was a frustrating waste of time.
“There’s got to be a better way to get aid to people and to get the recovery process started,” Cathay says. “Something better than what Mexico Beach experienced.”