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As disasters strike, advocates worry FEMA policy changes put disability community at risk

In the last month, two major storms have ripped through the Southeast: Hurricane Florence drenched the Carolinas, while the high winds of Hurricane Michael “shredded” houses in the Florida Panhandle. But as state and local governments assess the damage, nonprofits that aid people with disabilities during natural disasters are worried new policy changes within the Federal Emergency Management Agency could negatively affect recovery for these residents.

FEMA deploys teams of Disability Integration Advisors to provide assistance to those with disabilities during federally declared natural disasters, such as hurricanes, wildfires and floods. In the past, this included providing disability training to FEMA employees, as well as assessing what technical assistance people needed, like hearing amplifiers or sign-language interpreters. The roles of DIAs continued after the disaster, helping people find appropriate housing and avoid having to go to nursing homes.

But back in May, FEMA said it was reducing the number of DIAs per disaster from 60 to 5. For every major storm in the past, such as the 2016 flooding in Louisiana, FEMA deployed between 60 and 65 DIAs. During Florence last month, FEMA sent five advisors to North Carolina and two to South Carolina.

Here’s a closer look at FEMA’s decision to reduce the number of disability advisors in the field and how nonprofits are responding to the rollback.

Why the reduction?

Linda Mastandrea, the director of FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, announced the reduction was needed due to an “overreliance on DIAs to do the work” when it came to assisting individuals with disabilities. Mastandrea said that her hope was to move away from solely training FEMA’s disability advisors, to providing all local and state emergency managers and FEMA employees deployed in disasters with an understanding of how to assist those with disabilities.

However, Marcie Roth, the director of FEMA’s disability integration office up until 2016, believes the change has put this community at a disadvantage. The reduced number of these FEMA specialists isn’t her sole concern; Roth said there has been a shift in how these specialists respond to the needs of people with disabilities in disasters.

“We have repeatedly asked for information about what this [shift] looks like and unfortunately, FEMA has chosen not to engage with us, and so we can’t speak to what their change is other than anecdotal reports,” said Roth, who’s now CEO of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies.

For example, the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies told the PBS NewsHour they learned on a national stakeholder call during Hurricane Florence that FEMA Disability Integration Advisors were not physically visiting the areas affected as they had in the past, but were rather available by phone.

When asked to comment, a spokesperson at FEMA told the NewsHour that FEMA “deploys disability integration personnel to Joint Field Offices to advise leadership and ensure response and recovery planning and execution is accessible to the entire community.” FEMA has yet to comment on whether DIAs are also physically deployed to shelters, or are only available by phone.

Hurricane Michael is the latest test

So far, one DIA is known to have been deployed to Florida, Roth told the NewsHour. Florida’s Division of Emergency Management’s plan for individuals with disabilities includes “special needs shelters” set up for those unable to take medication without assistance, or who have conditions that need professional monitoring. Transportation is available to and from the shelters through a registration process.

Roth said that right now the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies and Florida’s Department of Emergency Management are working very well together, though she added that, “We are at the very beginning of what we anticipate will be a very significant need” of issues arising for people with disabilities. One hurdle they’ve already encountered: confusion about whose job it is to respond to people with disabilities asking for help on social media.

About one in four Americans have some type of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But these statistics only account for people with chronic disabilities. Because temporary health conditions, such as broken bones or illness require many of the same needs in a disaster, the numbers of people requiring special assistance are even higher.

In March 2018, the Florida Division of Emergency Management put out an improvement report that stated the changes they hoped to implement following last year’s natural disasters. That report also included a call for coordinating a better working relationship between government agencies and disability NGOs.

Whether or not the collaboration between federal and non-profit disability agencies has be successful following Hurricane Michael remains to be seen.

Getting specialized supplies to those in need

“Boots on the ground” support for the disability community is vital, said Jessica Michot, co-founder of Trach Mommas, a nonprofit organization providing specialized home medical supplies to those with disabilities. The needs of this community can be nuanced, according to Michot, especially when it comes to providing medical supplies like oxygen concentrators, power cords for ventilators, medical formula, among other items.

There can be a delay in medical supply shipments during disasters when companies providing those items are affected, said Angela Lorio, Michot’s co-founder. She said Trach Mommas received a call during Hurricane Florence from a woman evacuating to Georgia with her 12-year-old son, who relied on a feeding tube. The woman said she was only able to procure a few weeks’ worth of medical formula before they evacuated. Trach Mommas and other nonprofits stepped in to ship her supplies.

Michot and Lorio, who were inspired to start the nonprofit after personal experience with their sons’ disabilities, have been working with FEMA since 2016. Back then, Lorio said FEMA had “boots on the ground,” when it came to providing resources for the disability community. She said, then, there was a “true partnership” between Trach Mommas and FEMA, who would pick up medical supplies from the nonprofit to deliver to shelters, as well as consistently assess which needs still had to be met. That partnership, according to Lorio, “no longer exists.”

What’s next

Roth said that she continues to request information from FEMA on the motivations behind their new policy changes. The Partnership provides training to local disability organizations on the complexities of recovery for this community and is working with the House and Senate on legislation that would address the federal government’s role in monitoring and enforcing this training and education.

In the meantime, the Partnership says the invitation for FEMA to join calls discussing disability disaster preparedness is always open.