A tree with some wires blocking a residential driveway.

Things you Should Know About Getting Reimbursed for Hazard Tree Removal After a Natural Disaster

Natural disasters often result in the loss of and damage to numerous trees. In some cases, trees may become a hazard by falling onto threatening structures, damming waterways, and blocking streets.

Removing hazardous trees and stumps can be expensive and getting reimbursement can be challenging. Here are some things you need to know.

When Will FEMA Help

FEMA will reimburse for the removal of trees, stumps, and other debris from public property, and also from private property as “authorized.” The removal has to be in the public interest.

This means the tree has to:

  • Present an immediate threat to life, safety, or public health.
  • Present an immediate threat of significant damage to public or private property (for example if it’s about to fall on a structure).
  • Disrupt economic recovery of the affected community (for example if it’s blocking the only road in and out of an area).

Uprooted trees often do present a risk to public health and safety. Typically, FEMA will reimburse reasonable costs if the stump is more than 24 inches in diameter at two feet from the ground. If you have to remove the stump immediately, you should take photographs that establish the location, stump diameter, size of the hole, and how it might present a hazard.

Reimbursement is at the typical cost for normal debris removal.

For hazardous trees, FEMA will cover the cost of removal for trees with broken canopies or that are in imminent danger of falling, as long as they are six inches or larger in diameter at 4.5 feet above ground level. Documentation should include photographs and the exact location of the trees. The program will also cover limbs two inches or larger in diameter on either a per limb or per tree basis.

Fallen Tree Blocking Road

What Will FEMA Not Cover

FEMA will generally only cover the removal of hazard trees. There is no reimbursement for straightening or bracing large trees unless it costs less than removal, and if a braced tree later dies, FEMA will not cover the removal.

Small trees, less than six inches in diameter, or stumps less than 24 inches in diameter are not covered specifically but are likely included in regular storm debris removal. That is, they can typically be carried away by the city or county when left at the curb.

In the past, FEMA has not covered the removal and disposal of standing dead trees unless they present an imminent threat. The focus of FEMA funding is on the protection of human life and property, not aesthetics or wildlife. Another example of something FEMA chose not to reimburse was the pre-storm trimming of undamaged trees, as this is not a direct result of the disaster. Basically, FEMA can be fairly narrow in what they cover.

FEMA also does not cover debris removal from navigable waterways (there is a different mechanism for that), agricultural land, or natural land.

Finally, FEMA will not help if any other government agency, such as the Federal Highway Administration, has the authority to assist. The rule is in place to ensure that nobody is reimbursed twice for the same incident.

How Can Individuals and Companies Get Access to This Money?

Typically, FEMA provides most of its money to jurisdictions. However, individuals and families can sometimes get direct assistance if their insurance does not cover all of their losses or is delayed. More often, they are referred to get a low-interest disaster loan.

For the most part, if you have hazardous trees on your property you should request assistance from your local government, which may, in turn, ask for help from FEMA.

FEMA will not fund the removal of broken limbs from private property unless they extend over the ROW and pose an immediate threat. In most cases, your insurance should cover it.

However, as already mentioned, you can also get a low-interest disaster loan, as can businesses of all sizes located in a disaster zone. These loans are administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA). A physical damage loan to cover the repair of physical assets may potentially be used to pay for debris removal.

Private property owners may find that they are approached if a tree or stump on their property presents a hazard, or should talk to their local government.

How Can Applicants Properly Validate that a Tree is Hazardous?

As already mentioned, FEMA will only provide funding for the removal of trees and stumps that cause a hazard. The validation requires cooperation between FEMA, the state, and the applicant (again, applicants are local and tribal governments). The best practices are as follows:

  • The validation team contains people who are familiar with debris removal operations and FEMA policy, representing all of the stakeholders.
  • The validation team meets at the start to identify expectations.
  • At least 500 work items should be sampled to validate.
  • Validations for trees, limbs, and stumps need to be separate.
  • Validations for work on public and private property need to be separate.
  • Interim validations may be conducted before the debris removal operation is complete. Final validations will then cover the remainder of the work. Interim validations are generally used to ensure that issues are addressed.

The documentation must include:

  • Names and affiliations of team members.
  • Date and location of inspections.
  • Number of trees, limbs, and stumps selected for validation.
  • Load tickets and/or invoices for the selected hazards.
  • Validation results.
  • Debris contractor who performed the work (unless the work is being done in-house).
  • Debris monitor that oversaw the work (if there was one).
  • Any agreements about work on private property.

FEMA will validate this within 45 days, and appeals are possible if the reimbursement is turned down. The important thing is to ensure that all of the work is eligible under the rules above.

FEMA can help with some hazardous tree removal, typically by providing reimbursement to local governments for the work. It only comes in when there is a declared disaster. For individuals and companies, however, FEMA does not generally provide direct tree removal support, and you should instead talk to your local government about any losses your insurance refuses to cover.