DHS seeks to better serve disaster victims with disabilities

Days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana/Mississippi border, it became clear that people with disabilities were having trouble getting help.

Census figures indicate that more than 20 percent of the population affected by Hurricane Katrina had some type of disability. As people flowed out of New Orleans last August, complaints began flowing in from those with disabilities who were poorly served during the evacuation.

People who used customized wheelchairs were rescued, but their chairs were left behind, rendering the evacuees essentially immobile when they arrived at a shelter. Shelters had no sign-language interpreters or written announcements for the hearing-impaired. Travel trailers and mobile homes were ill-equipped for people with disabilities, and trailer parks had no accommodations for them. Some shelters refused to accept evacuees traveling with service animals.

By the end of September, in an effort to help the disabled, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff dispatched a team from Washington to join the Federal Emergency Management Agency's recovery operations. It was the first act of what are likely to be dozens of operational changes being implemented by FEMA, the Red Cross, and state agencies.

Daniel Sutherland, the DHS officer for civil rights and civil liberties who is chairman of the department's Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals With Disabilities, said that DHS began implementing changes even before formal policy reviews were completed. The first -- and likely most sweeping -- of these is establishing a disability section in the disaster headquarters. Other changes will include new operating procedures to address special needs.

"We need to have a team that can really focus on these issues," Sutherland said in an interview. "It's not in the National Response Plan, so one of our key recommendations is that the plan be rewritten. When I told Chertoff that, he said, 'That's fine, but get your team ready to deploy now. We are not waiting for rewriting documents.' "

The DHS coordinating council is working on other recommendations, including ensuring that announcements in emergency shelters are accessible to people who do not hear or see, and providing ways for the disabled to identify their special needs when they register for federal assistance.

Many of the problems identified during Katrina were also highlighted in after-action reports from other disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Andrew, Sutherland told a hurricane conference in April. "It is time now to stop writing reports cataloguing the problems, but instead to take action to implement commonsense solutions," he said.

Sutherland says that his group has been giving Chertoff "a report every other week that tracks progress on the 20 or 25 items that we think are most urgent." The official recommendations will likely be finished this month.

Already, Sutherland's group has begun discussing new guidelines with the American Red Cross that will improve accessibility of shelters and provide communication options for people with auditory or visual disabilities. An expert team dispatched by DHS has helped FEMA rewrite specifications to make trailers more accessible. And at the end of June, DHS and the Health and Human Services Department will host a national meeting with officials from all 50 states in hopes of improving state programs.

But all this activity still meets with skepticism among disability advocates. "All that we have heard is verbal commitments," said Jeff Rosen, policy director for the National Council on Disability, an independent federal panel that advises the White House and Congress on disability policy. "Secretary Chertoff made a commitment to changing the infrastructure of DHS, especially FEMA, to better serve people with disabilities, but we haven't seen anything yet. There have been some important incremental steps that have been taken, but these issues are in no way able to be dealt with in incremental ways."

Rosen argues that DHS and FEMA still rely heavily on voluntary agreements with outside organizations to address the needs of people with disabilities, steps he calls inadequate to serve the millions of citizens with disabilities. "You've got to have dedicated officials with designated resources, and that's not happening," Rosen said.

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