How FEMA struggles to help people with disabilities during disasters

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is insufficient in how it responds to and assists people with disabilities, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Children, individuals with disabilities, senior citizens and low-income individuals are disproportionately affected in disasters. In testimony July 23, witnesses urged Congress to ensure a more comprehensive integration of these underserved and vulnerable populations in emergency planning.

Witnesses told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery that vulnerable populations are more likely to die or be injured in disaster due to lack of planning, accessibility and accommodation. Many don’t have access to crucial resources such as transportation, medical equipment and care, and shelters during and after disasters.

After the 2017 hurricanes, FEMA significantly reduced the number of disability integration staff deployed to disasters and shifted the responsibility of directly assisting individuals with disabilities from disability integration staff to all FEMA staff. The agency went from sending an average of 55 disability integration advisers to help after a disaster to sending an average of five, as noted by subcommittee chairman Rep. Donald Payne, R-NJ.

“Instead of deploying staff specialists to provide assistance, all generalist staff deployed to help respond to and recover from a disaster are to receive training on disability issues and provide hands-on assistance where needed,” said witness Elizabeth Curda, a director at GAO. “However, FEMA has not yet provided comprehensive training to all deployable staff on how to people with disabilities.”

GAO recommended that FEMA develop a timeline and plan on how to create a training course. As of June 2019, FEMA said a comprehensive in-person course would be ready in August 2020.

According to GAO, FEMA previously offered a two-day disability-integration course to its nonfederal partners, but cancelled the course in September 2017. In 2018, FEMA required all staff to complete a “30-minute training on basic disability integration principles and offered targeted ‘just-in-time’ training to deployed staff.”

“When you talk about FEMA staff being trained in a wide variety of areas, as opposed to subject matter expertise in dealing with these vulnerable populations, you’re asking a lot of that person in a disaster,” said witness Major Louis V. Bucchere, a commanding officer of the New Jersey State Police.

Witnesses urged Congress to make more staff available at the onset, during and after a disaster, including those with mental health and pediatric training to meet the direct needs of more vulnerable populations.

“The responsibility that FEMA has is to make sure that qualified people are doing what's necessary to make sure that the protections of people with disabilities are assured throughout disasters,” said witness Marcie Roth, CEO of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies.

“It is very difficult to understand how a generalized workforce who doesn’t have qualifications in the very things FEMA set out to have developed qualifications could possibly meet those obligations. And yet unqualified people are now dealing with life and death, lifesaving, life sustaining and the futures of 26 percent of the population — people with disabilities.”

Witnesses said one solution was integrating the disability, access and functional needs community and other vulnerable populations in the emergency management community.

“Task forces and planning groups in New Jersey have been established at all levels to foster collaboration, identify gaps and resources, and develop inclusive plans by harnessing the subject matter expertise of the DAFN community and other vulnerable populations,” Bucchere said.

“Because they are in the best position to voice their concerns and identify solutions and resources, they are an integral part of the solution. We learned how to incorporate their experience and expertise into the planning process to provide the services they need, not the services we think they need.”

Witnesses also urged Congress to improve the FEMA application process both in terms of navigation and making it more accessible to those without access to internet.

“We’d like FEMA to move, ideally, to a one-stop shopping experience,” Bucchere said. “It’s tough to navigate the process ... we’d like to see us come to the day where an individual can come log on, enter their personal information, and have that system tell them exactly what they’re eligible for.”

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