Some of the best writing I’ve read about the issue of land rights for poor, mostly Black residents in the US, and how it prevents them from receiving many forms of support and loans — specifically FEMA grants after disasters, as described in this terrific account. Some graphic glitches below.
‘The real damage’
Why FEMA is denying disaster aid to Black families that have lived for generations in the Deep South.
Albert Nixon, 89, displays a photo of his sister Jessie Johnson, now 88, that was salvaged after a tornado destroyed their home in Greensboro, Ala., in March. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
July 11, 2021|Updated today at 11:34 a.m. EDT
HALE COUNTY, Ala. — Not enough people were signing up for help after a series of tornadoes ripped through rural Alabama, so the government sent Chris Baker to figure out why. He had driven past the spot where a tornado threw a 13-year-old girl high into a tree, past where injured cows had to be shot one by one, and past where a family was crushed to death in their bathtub. And now, as another day began in this patchwork of destruction, he grabbed a stack of fliers with a picture of an outstretched hand and headed to his car to let people know Washington had assistance to offer.
“So we’ll do a convoy?” Baker asked the local official who had offered to show him around, looking down to check that the badge identifying him as a specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency was in place.
He needn’t have bothered. “There goes FEMA,” called a woman on her porch as they drove by. Two burly White men in khaki cargo pants on a hot day — who else would it be? A majority-Black county named for an officer in the Confederate Army, Hale County is a place of little interest to outsiders; an area of dense forests, catfish farms and 15,000 residents, most of whom can trace their ancestry back to enslaved people or plantation owners.
President Biden has instructed FEMA to prioritize getting help to these kinds of “too often overlooked” communities — the places that climate change is already overwhelming with more storms, floods and heat waves. And Baker was eager to do just that. “That’s why we’re knocking on what doors we can,” he said.
Baker was new to the agency, and this was his second deployment to a disaster zone. His supervisors had asked him to spread the word that people who lost homes to the March 25 tornadoes still had time to apply for grants of up to $72,000. But as he canvassed the area, a different message was spreading much faster: That people here were in fact not eligible for anything, because of how they had inherited their land. Because of the way Black people have always inherited land in Hale County.
More than a third of Black-owned land in the South is passed down informally, rather than through deeds and wills, according to land use experts. It’s a custom that dates to the Jim Crow era, when Black people were excluded from the Southern legal system. When land is handed down like this, it becomes heirs’ property, a form of ownership in which families hold property collectively, without clear title.
People believed this protected their land, but the Department of Agriculture has found that heirs’ property is “the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” Without formal deeds, families are cut off from federal loans and grants, including from FEMA, which requires that disaster survivors prove they own their property before they can get help rebuilding.
Nationally, FEMA denies requests for help from about 2 percent of applicants for disaster aid because of title issues. In majority-Black counties, the rate is twice as high, according to a Washington Post analysis, in large part because Black people are twice as likely to pass down property informally. But in parts of the Deep South, FEMA has rejected up to a quarter of applicants because they can’t document ownership, according to the Post analysis. In Hale County, FEMA has denied 35 percent of disaster aid applicants for this reason since March.
Not that Baker knew much about that; not yet. His bosses had sent him out from his office in Atlanta with a list of metrics. Eight counties eligible for help. Four weeks until the deadline to apply. Eight hundred applications received so far, of which 100 had been approved. There was nothing on the briefing sheet about heirs’ property. He had visited several areas now, meeting with officials and volunteers. But when he arrived in Hale County, local emergency management director Russell Weeden had suggested a tour to see “the real damage.”
They pulled up a narrow dirt road, then got out and climbed a gravel path to the first stop of the day. The tornado had tossed debris across several acres of scrubby grass. The air was heavy and silent, with few trees left for birds to perch in. Baker passed an embroidered pillow and a sequined high-heel shoe, and then the full wreckage of a three-bedroom home that had stood since a generation after the Civil War came into view.
“Well, this house was certainly blown away,” Weeden said.
“Isn’t that something?” Baker said. He reached for his notebook and went to get a closer look.
Albert Nixon looks through the wreckage of his home in Greensboro. He has no clear title to the property, which was passed down to him. No clear title means no federal disaster aid. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
The question of what happens to heirs’ property after a disaster is not unique to rural Alabama. FEMA has been grappling with the issue since at least 2005, when 20,000 heirs’ property owners were denied federal help after Hurricane Katrina, according to a USDA report. It came up again in 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. That time, FEMA denied more than 80,000 applications because of title problems.
There is no legal basis for requiring disaster survivors to provide incontrovertible proof of homeownership. FEMA created that requirement on its own, to combat scammers who make off with as much as 1 percent of aid each year. In 2018, under pressure to resolve the crisis in Puerto Rico, the agency created a process for people to self-certify homeownership.
But the fix applied only to islands and tribal areas, and it was not extended to the Deep South, where in internal correspondence, FEMA has recognized heirs’ property as “a perennial issue.” A FEMA spokesperson said the agency still requires most disaster survivors to prove ownership because “land ownership is recorded as a standard practice” in all of the continental United States and “self-certification of ownership increases the agency’s vulnerability” to fraud and improper payments.
Black families denied disaster relief
Applicants for FEMA disaster aid in majority-Black counties are twice as likely to be rejected because they cannot prove that they own their home.
“So this was two elderly people, and they were at home,” Weeden explained as Baker peered into the house on the hill. There were just a few walls left, tipping at odd angles. Clocks lay on the ground, all stopped at 4:35, the time the tornado touched down. Weeden said the house belonged to a brother and sister who had lived there nearly 90 years and were found by rescuers sitting dazed on a log. “I don’t know if they’re going to rebuild or what.
Baker thought they sounded like ideal candidates for help. The information they would need was laid out in his flier, but he was starting to understand that there might not be anyone around for him to hand a flier to. “Sometimes you can get messages out on the highway overpasses,” he said — but Hale County didn’t have interstate highways. “It’s hard in a rural spot. You could put it on a cow, maybe,” he said, thenfell silent.
The ground they were standing on, like so much Southern land, had been purchased by a Black family during Reconstruction, a time when a generation of Black workers saved up and bought every plot they could, no matter how barren and unpromising. Within a few decades, a new class of landowners emerged: By 1910, Black people made up 10 percent of the U.S. population but 14 percent of its farmers. In Hale County, more than a quarter of farmland was Black-owned.
It was a short-lived era of prosperity, however, as Black landowners began buckling under what the USDA describes as a “well-documented” system of discrimination, including exclusion from loans and swindles by officials. Bands of poor White farmers threatened to murder Black landowners if they didn’t flee. Historians believe that many lynchings from this time, including hundreds in Alabama, were carried out to take Black property. By the end of the 20th century, the share of Black-owned farmland in Hale County had fallen to just 3 percent, including the plot on the hill, where the only sounds were the wind and a smoke alarm chirping somewhere.
“Sorry to be taking you out to an area where there’s nobody,” Weeden said.
“No, it’s quite all right,” Baker said. They got in their cars and headed to the next site the local official wanted to show Baker, unaware that a neighbor had been watching the whole time. Her name was Bernice Ward, and later that day, she went to see the owners of the house.
“I called y’all about five times and y’all didn’t answer,” Bernice said as she pulled up and saw two frail people sitting outside the suburban home where they were temporarily staying.
“We ain’t been nowhere but here,” said Albert Nixon, who was about to turn 90. “We probably didn’t hear the phone.”
“I was gonna come here and get you and take you to the house to talk to FEMA,” Bernice said.
“They were at my house?” Albert asked, surprised an agency that had twice rejected his applications for assistance would be seeking him out. “Ineligible — Ownership Not Verified,” the rejection letters had said, leaving Albert confused as to what the problem was. “I been living there all my days,” he said.
“I’m tired of being here,” his sister Jessie Johnson, who was 88, joined in.
“We’re a long way from home,” Albert said of the place where he and his sister had spent their childhoods picking cotton and had never left, even after their siblings had moved away or died. For Albert especially, his whole life was tied up in those 40 acres of fertile land and the shotgun shack to which he had added three rooms over the years. He had kept up the peach and pecan trees his father planted, and gotten up early each morning to feed the cows and chickens right up until the day the tornado hit.
It was part of a tornado outbreak that killed seven people, with 150 mph winds. The siblings had sought shelter in Albert’s bedroom, the innermost room of the house and the place where they had been born. As they clung to a four-post bed, the winds lifted off the roof and threw it into the woods, exposing a sky that looked to them like nighttime. The windows shattered, and something gave Albert a black eye. Within seconds, the storm ripped apart every room but the one in which they were sheltering. When it passed, they crawled out through a hole where the chimney had stood.
They had grieved to see their orchards and animals suddenly gone. And they were disoriented by what came next, when they moved to a house in another town that had stood empty since a family tragedy played out there. The siblings spent most of their time in the carport, where Bernice was now trying to help Albert understand the status of his application. She didn’t know the details, so she called their grandniece, who had contacted FEMA’s national helpline on the siblings’ behalf the day before.
“We have to prove that you own the house,” the grandniece explained.
“It ain’t in my name; it’s in my granddaddy’s name,” Albert said. “My daddy and them never did change it over.” Just before he died, Albert’s grandfather had warned the family never to let a White man take their land. Albert believed that by keeping the plot as heir’s property, he had minded his grandfather’s words. “A lot of folks been trying to buy the land. Trying to take it. But they won’t get it as long as I’m living,” he said.
The grandniece suggested that Albert might at least be able to show he paid the property taxes.
“I paid for it, but I told them, ‘Let it stay in my brother’s name,’” Albert said. “And my brother’s dead.”
“Oh well see, I don’t know,” the grandniece said.
“If I wasn’t old, I would’ve cleaned it up myself,” Albert said.
After a while, Bernice got up to leave. “I’ll come see you again in a few days,” she told the siblings.
“We’ll be here,” Albert said.
FEMA specialist Chris Baker tours a tornado-hit community in Central Alabama in May to hand out fliers advertising federal disaster assistance. (Hannah Dreier/The Washington Post)
All through the morning and into the afternoon, Baker kept following Weeden down red dirt roads that looked much like they had 50 or 100 years ago, except that with every turn, there was more wreckage.
“At least they had it bolted down,” Baker said as they passed a trailer so obliterated only the tie-down anchors were left. “Didn’t hold up too good, though.” He looked out at a home that had been stripped into planks, where black-eyed Susans were growing from a smashed pink dollhouse. “Tornados always seem to be attracted to the trailers,” he said. They saw a spot where a homeowner had piled the remains of his walls next to a sign saying, “Free bricks.” Not all the homes had been reduced to rubble. Weeden also took him by a five-bedroom house that was still standing but had 10 red, black and blue tarps where the roof had been. “That’s hard,” Baker said.
Stop by stop, Baker’s understanding of the need in Hale County was growing deeper. Five hours into the day, however, not a word had been spoken about titles, wills or heirs’ property. Weeden hadn’t mentioned it, if he was aware of it at all. Baker didn’t know to ask. And the people who might have told him were not around.
And so the men continued on with their mission, even as the owner of the house with the tarps was continuing with his, which was to prove that the home he had built for his wife and sons a quarter-century earlier indeed belonged to him.
What the owner was trying to do specifically was get signatures. That’s what a lawyer told Lonny Wilson, 60, to try to do after he received a denial from FEMA. He needed to get all the heirs to the family land to sign a notarized form attesting that he owned his house. There were 15 of them in all, scattered from Las Vegas to Boston.
With no other option to repair the damage from water seeping through his ceilings, Lonny set out to visit his sister, who lived nearby. Hers should have been the easiest of the signatures to get, but he had given her a form the week before and had heard nothing since.
He walked through a field of broken trees that smelled like sweet pine, worrying about what would happen if someone decided not to sign. So many things could go wrong. There were scams in which developers buy out a single heir and then force an auction of the whole plot, which was how Lonny’s wife lost her land. There were cases in which distant relatives who didn’t even know they had a stake in a property tried to sell it after receiving a call like the one Lonny would be making to his relatives. And there was just the simple fact of what can happen in families. “You never know what a person will hold against you. Sometimes blood is worse than water,” Lonny said.
His sister Evelyn Pickens came to the porch to meet him. “Hi, come on in,” she said. “It’s hot and the mosquitoes are out.”
“Thanks,” Lonny said and walked past her into the living room, where he saw the form sitting on her coffee table, still blank.
“It’s raining every other day in the house. If I keep waiting, I’m going to have to demo it down,” he said. “They’re telling me I need documentation.”
“It’s no problem to sign it. I just wasn’t in a rush,” Evelyn said, and soon was on her way to the county seat of Greensboro, parking next to a statue of a soldier with a Confederate flag, the tallest one on Main Street.
The town notary watched Evelyn sign Lonny’s paper and stamped it with a seal. “I bet you’ve seen a few of these,” Evelyn said. “How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing. I’m not charging to do those,” the notary said. She’d been stamping affidavits all month as families struggled to come up with something to show FEMA before the approaching deadline. “This is about all we can do to help right now.”
Evelyn thanked her. “The truth is we don’t even know if FEMA will accept this,” she said. She slipped the form into her purse and drove back to the house with the mismatched tarps, where Lonny was waiting outside.
One down, he thought when he saw the letter. Fourteen more to go.
Behind Lonny Wilson, 60, in Greensboro, is the now-tornado-damaged house he owns as heirs’ property. To potentially qualify for FEMA aid, he set out to collect declarations from 15 relatives. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
This abandoned house in Greensboro is an example of what often follows a denial of aid to owners of properties that have been in Black families for generations without clear title. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Greensboro police officer and storm victim Eric Wiggins passes storm debris near his former home. Lacking a property title, he opted against appealing FEMA’s denial of his aid application. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Baker and Weeden weren’t the only ones touring the back roads that afternoon. So was a police officer named Eric Wiggins, who made his own survey of the disaster zone five days a week.
Wiggins, 47, was one of Greensboro’s six patrol officers. He had moved back after retiring from the Navy and was living on heirs’ property handed down by his great-grandfather. He’d been renovating a trailer that once belonged to his grandmother, adding hardwood floors and new appliances. The family gathered there for holidays, and each summer, his cousins came back from the East Coast so their kids could swim in the creek and relearn how to run barefoot on rough red clay. Eric was planning to put in granite countertops next. But the tornado demolished the trailer, and after FEMA denied his application, Eric had decided not to appeal because he knew he couldn’t produce a deed.
To him, the destroyed houses he passed each day were evidence of government neglect. “Two months, no progress. Is that going well?” Eric asked on one of his rounds. “But this is a segregated town, and the community that got hit was predominantly Black. So there’s no urgency.”
Eric liked to slowly circle the area in his cruiser, stretching each lap out to an hour and a half. He tapped his horn and waved when he spotted children playing or older people on porches. He felt lucky to be able to stay with his mother while he figured out what to do next. Otherwise, he might have ended up like people he knew of who were in far worse shape, such as Joe Lee Webb, sleeping in his truck next to his destroyed family home, or Clarissa Skipper, living with two kids in an old trailer with a fallen tree in the middle of it.
The roads were quiet except for an occasional wild turkey stepping out of the forest. Before long, Eric saw one of the people he most worried about — a man named Ronald Reaves, who had moved to a hotel with his daughter after a tornado smashed their home into a hillside. Eric stopped his cruiser next to a house where Ronald was rebuilding a porch. “How’ve you been?” he called out.
“I’m hoping it gets better,” Ronald said. “I’m thinking maybe we’ll get one of those storage sheds or a camper. I just need a little place for a bed, a place for a bathroom.”
“It ain’t that hard for me because I’m at my mama’s. But I know what it’s like,” Eric said.
“It been real rough, man,” Ronald said. “We can’t get no help. FEMA’s taking too long, you know what I’m saying?”
“I know it. They denied me, too,” Eric said.
“Oh, for real?” Ronald said.
“They denied a lot of people,” Eric said. “They want you to show ownership, and a lot of people are on heirs’ property.”
“This is all heir property, though,” Ronald said. “I don’t understand how they’re doing us like that, to all these folks.”
“Don’t nobody understand,” Eric said, and wished Ronald luck.
“I’m about ready to give it up,” Ronald said, shaking his head.
Turning back toward town, Eric pointed out Briana Bouyer’s place, which was roofless and teetering. She, too, had been denied with a letter that began, “Ineligible — Ownership Not Verified.” Instead of trying to sort out the title, she and her husband got a loan to buy a small house elsewhere.
“I saw that on Facebook, and good for them, but you lose something when you move away from family land,” Eric said.
He looped around and passed a museum marking the place where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once hid from the Ku Klux Klan. On the other side of the street now named for the civil rights leader, the homes were mostly abandoned, the paint peeling, roofs sagging, windows broken. “See what I mean?” Eric said. “Things change if nobody stays.”
Finally, he stopped at a clearing that looked like it had been swept clean except for a red wooden porch. Only the trees, which were full of pink building insulation and twisted metal, gave any indication of the home that had stood there. These were the remains of Eric’s trailer. “It took five minutes and everything was gone,” he said. He hoped eventually to get a bank loan to rebuild. “If I was to leave, this land would grow up and look like a forest,” he said. “There would be no life in it.”
Briana Bouyer, seen at her damaged home in Greensboro, which was hit by the tornado in March, was denied FEMA disaster relief because she could not prove she owned her property. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
“So this is pretty much how it looked the day of,” Weeden said when they pulled up to the last stop of the day. There was no house, only a red wooden porch. There was pink insulation and metal in the trees. A cop had lived there, Weeden said. “When we got here, he was at home, but his trailer was no longer at home.”
“At least the porch survived,” Baker said quietly.
In all, he had visited a dozen properties, talked to no owners, and posted one flier. He asked Weeden to keep spreading the word. “It’s horrible when something like this happens,” Baker said, “but we get to come in and help.”
“That’s what I tell them: At least apply. All they can do is say no,” Weeden said.
And that was how Baker’s day in Hale County came to an end.
Two weeks later, he was back at his desk in Atlanta. His team was preparing for what was forecast to be an especially punishing hurricane season, and Baker had a stack of reports to look through. But he was still thinking about the need he had seen in Alabama, and about a conversation he’d had with a state official just before he left. The official explained that many Black families, including his own, shared inherited plots of land and were cut off from federal help as a result.
“That can’t be right,” Baker had said. “We must have something in place for that.” But the official insisted, so on his drive back, Baker called his FEMA supervisor, who told him that this was indeed a problem throughout the South. No clear deeds. No clear wills. No clear property tax records. And that was how Baker finally learned about heirs’ property.
Now he found himself turning to FEMA’s 300-page Individual Assistance handbook to figure out what could be done for the people whose homes he had visited, who already seemed to have vanished from their land.
Flipping through the arcane rules, Baker saw a list of documents the agency will accept as proof of ownership. The first was an original deed. “Well we don’t have that,” he said. The next was an insurance bill. “That’s not going to work,” he said.
He remembered how random and extreme the destruction had been. The sequined high heel. The dollhouse sprouting yellow flowers. He didn’t like to think that he had been advertising help that people had no chance of getting.
Next on the list was a property tax receipt. “But that’s not going to be in their name,” he said. The last option was a formal will. “But they don’t have that, either,” he said.
Then Baker got to a caveat. “FEMA may accept a written statement as a last resort,” he read, relieved to have found a workaround. This was the fix allowing people in Puerto Rico to self-certify ownership. “Oh, but that’s just for the islands,” he said, and sighed.
Baker was proud to work for FEMA. He believed in its mission. But he didn’t understand why the rules would be set up like this. The deadline to apply for help was just days away now. The owners of the houses he had seen would have to appeal to local charities or make whatever arrangements they could on their own. “One case like this is too many, honestly,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s the family that we care about, not how the land came down.”
He thought of the elderly siblings who had ridden out the tornado in their home. The way the walls must have shuddered and then been wrenched loose. The daze they must have been in when they crawled out. Baker looked over the list one more time. “It’s too bad. There’s nothing in here,” he said.
Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.
Steps to nowhere mark the spot where a house stood in the town of Sawyerville until a tornado tore through Hale County, Ala., in March. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)