Visualizing Disaster Legal Aid Relief with Figuring out FEMA

Katie Lam
Katie Lam
Jan 13 · 8 min read

It should be no surprise that natural disasters exacerbate everyday legal problems. Resolving these problems can play a key role in helping families get back on their feet. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides assistance to disaster relief victims, but the process of applying for Individual Assistance can be highly complex and difficult to complete.

Pro Bono Net (PBN) teamed up with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), a nonprofit organization that uses the power of design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement, and Carmen Lopez, a designer, to make navigating the Individual Assistance application process easier. Using PBN’s advocacy expertise, CUP’s unique method of community-engaged design, and Carmen’s design prowess, our team developed Figuring out FEMA, a pocket guide for people applying to FEMA’s Individual Assistance program.

The Individual Assistance Program is federal disaster assistance that has been made available to state or territories to supplement their recovery efforts. This program makes federal funding available for emergency work and to individuals and businesses owners who sustain damage as a result of a disaster. Unlike typical disaster relief materials, Figuring out FEMA utilizes popular education-style visualizations to convey the critical information that victims need. This legal empowerment approach to disaster relief strives to simplify the post-disaster experience rather than complicate it.

I spoke in-depth with Jeanne Ortiz Ortiz, Pro Bono & Strategic Initiatives Manager at Pro Bono Net, and Yasmin Safdié, Director of Programs at CUP, about the process behind creating this powerful resource.

Diagram of the different pathways for disaster relief victims applying to individual assistance.
Diagram of the different pathways for disaster relief victims applying to individual assistance.

To start us off, what is Figuring out FEMA?

Jeanne: Figuring out FEMA is a mini pocket guide that PBN developed in partnership with CUP. I like to describe it as a Know-Your-Rights resource for disaster survivors anywhere in the US. It not only provides helpful information, but also legitimizes people’s experience after a natural disaster. It covers the basics of the Individual Assistance program application process for communities that have been impacted by disasters. The goal of this guide is to break down the application process for the first few days and weeks after a person’s house or property have been destroyed. We want to provide a simple, accessible, and reliable resource for when people are trying to figure out how to get help.

What inspired this collaboration between PBN and CUP?

Jeanne: Pro Bono Net has been involved in disaster response efforts since the 9/11 attacks. Our work in this field has allowed us to understand the challenges, issues, and best practices in disaster legal aid and recovery, and connected us to some of the best legal aid organizations and attorneys involved in this work that help us understand the consequence of legal response work. After the 2017 disasters, we were seeing those needs and challenges amplified across the US, especially in Texas, Puerto Rico, California, and Florida. We knew of the Center for Urban Pedagogy and that they had an open call for community organizations to apply for projects, so we decided to apply for the Public Access Design program.

What did PBN have in mind when you first applied?

Jeanne: Initially, we wanted to create something for the Puerto Rican diaspora who were relocating to New York because of Hurricane María. We wanted to create something that would facilitate an understanding of the FEMA application and appeals process, since FEMA was extending the benefits deadline for Hurricane María survivors. After several conversations about the potential of the project, we decided to broaden our reach and create something for disaster survivors across the United States.

A brunette woman explains disaster relief rights to a man with a mustache and a woman in a hijab
A brunette woman explains disaster relief rights to a man with a mustache and a woman in a hijab

Yasmin, what was CUP’s role during the design process?

Yasmin: During the design process, CUP facilitates the collaboration to make sure everyone can bring their different expertise to the table, including the expertise organizers have about the issue and community members have about their own lived experience with that issue. Our goal is to make a project that is stronger than any of us could make on our own, and that can only happen if everyone can be part of the conversation.

What did the design process with CUP entail for PBN?

Jeanne: After PBN was selected for the project, we scheduled a teach-in with CUP’s team to give an overview about disaster legal aid, and how a pocket guide like this one could complement disaster relief efforts across regions. I also sent [CUP’s team] some supplemental materials and resources that would be helpful for them and Carmen, the designer. Then, Carmen came in and she talked us through her design style and some of her past projects. CUP created a scoping document based on the teach-in and their own interpretation of the information that would serve as a template for the guide. That document was initially 10–12 pages and we had to narrow it down to approximately 6 pages. We scheduled several meetings after that to go over the scoping document. We asked a lot of questions like “What do we have right? What do we have wrong? What do we absolutely need to include? What can we drop? What do we want people to have at the end of the pocket guide when they finish it?”

Then all of that led to Carmen creating wireframes and incorporating some of the [scoping document] text and her own understanding and design elements to the guide. We had a semi final spread and then conducted our first user testing session. We incorporated that feedback into our next discussion. Then we [had] our second user testing session and then did the same thing again. And then we worked on final touches and edits.

A FEMA inspector wears a specific kind of ID. A woman encourages an elder woman not to give up despite challenges.
A FEMA inspector wears a specific kind of ID. A woman encourages an elder woman not to give up despite challenges.

Yasmin, how does visualization make complex policy issues or legal processes more accessible?

Yasmin: If you look at most policies and laws, you’ll find that they are incredibly lengthy and often written in confusing legal language that is hard for most people to understand. Visualization enables us to break down the important elements of the policy, law or process and describe them in a way that is accessible and applicable to people impacted by the laws and policies. In our process, we spend a lot of time narrowing down the major elements that need to be conveyed because they are most important to people impacted by the issue, thinking through hierarchy of information, and expressing them in a way that is relevant to the lives of people who will use the materials. The visualization enables us to further explain the complex policies and laws by actually showing through illustration instead of words and organizing information in a way that is easier to understand than say a bulleted word document.

There is a lot of research showing that visuals and well organized information can help us build “maps” in our brain in a way that helps us not only understand complex information better, but makes it easier for us to remember it later when we need it.

In addition, visualization enables us to reach a wider audience and people who are more visual learners. It also enables people to see themselves in the process we are describing and hopefully becomes more meaningful and applicable to them.

Besides incorporating clear visuals, how else did the team ensure accessibility?

Jeanne: CUP did an excellent job making the text accessible.This process was interesting because we wanted to be as accurate and comprehensive as possible, but the tricky part was that we had limited pages and text to do that. We also needed to balance the information with the images and other design elements in the guide so creativity was something we needed to integrate constantly. CUP’s team were gurus at shortening text. They’ve done this with multiple projects, so they’re really good at that.

A pair of hands holds up a piece of paper that features the kinds of details that a letter to FEMA should include.
A pair of hands holds up a piece of paper that features the kinds of details that a letter to FEMA should include.

Disaster relief is an issue that cuts across many forms of systemic inequality. How does CUP incorporate equity into its design work?

Yasmin: We incorporate equity into our design work in several ways. First we work on issues that are identified as important by the communities that are directly impacted by them. We see our work as using a “resource-ally model,” where our skills and services are applied in support of issues and solutions that are identified by communities and not by us.

We ensure the organizations that work with us are either led by or working directly with the community impacted by the issue the project is about. For most of our projects, we have a jury made up of designers and advocates who chose the projects. This helps hold us accountable to the wider design and advocacy community.

In addition, there are several times throughout the design process where there is a chance for more community members who are directly impacted by the issue to help us understand their experiences and what information would be important to include and later to give feedback both on content and design. This helps hold us accountable to creating something that speaks to the audience who will use the materials, represents them accurately, and is clear and easy to understand. In addition, we have conversations and provide trainings for designers in how to illustrate different communities without using stereotypes and unintentionally harmful imagery. Lastly, we are intentional in creating spaces to work with designers who have historically and systemically not had equitable access to design spaces.

What impact do you hope this pocket guide will have within the disaster relief community?

Jeanne: The application process with FEMA and other disaster assistance applications can be overwhelming. Most people want to move on as quickly as possible from an often traumatic event. Once people feel like they’ve hit a lot of roadblocks or barriers, they may feel like it’s not worth it and withdraw from the process altogether. It’s a truth that a lot of people in disaster relief and recovery know and share.

I’m excited to present this to the broader justice community and other advocates interested in sharing this as a tool for action. My hope is that this is something that our partners can use and share with their communities in the event of a disaster. In terms of someone who picks this up and sees this, my hope would be [that they say] OK, this is something I can do. I’m not alone in this process. I have a better understanding of the process. And I’m going to go for it. I’m going to check out this resource, or look up legal help in my area, or find more information about a FEMA appeal. That’s my hope. That’s the ultimate goal. If it’s one person who feels empowered and encouraged to go through the process and understand it a little bit better, then that’s a success story for me.


Looking for more resources about disaster legal aid? Check out Pro Bono Net’s Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center.

Interested in applying to one of CUP’s open calls? Sign up for CUP’s mailing list here.

Pro Bono Net

Katie Lam

Written by

Katie Lam

(she/hers) I’m an aspiring policymaker fascinated by the intersection of law, government, and tech.

Pro Bono Net

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