How did older people or those with disabilities fare immediately after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria? Emergency managers told a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation that it was sometimes difficult to locate these survivors and provide the help many needed to find food, medicine, and oxygen.
The three sequential hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—affected more than 28 million people in 2017, according to FEMA. Hurricane survivors aged 65 and older and those with disabilities faced particular challenges evacuating to safe shelter, accessing medicine, and obtaining recovery assistance.
GAO has reviewed disaster assistance for individuals who are older or have disabilities, and found a number of challenges in providing assistance to such individuals following the 2017 hurricanes. For example, officials said that many of these individuals required specialized assistance obtaining food, water, medicine, and oxygen, but aid was sometimes difficult to provide. Officials in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands cited particular difficulties providing this assistance due to damaged roads and communication systems, as well as a lack of documentation of nursing home locations.
Also, based on GAO’s analysis of FEMA data and interviews with FEMA officials and stakeholders, aspects of the process to apply for assistance from FEMA after the 2017 hurricanes were challenging for older individuals and those with disabilities. According to stakeholders and FEMA officials, disability-related questions in the registration materials are confusing and easily misinterpreted. For example, FEMA’s registration process does not include an initial question that directly asks individuals if they have a disability or if they would like to request an accommodation for completing the application process.
Looking past the sequential hurricanes, the GAO investigation found FEMA did not establish objectives before implementing its new approach to disability integration in June 2018, which includes adding new disability integration staff in the regions and decreasing the number of disability integration advisors deployed to disaster sites. Without documented objectives for the new approach, regional leadership across the nation may implement changes inconsistently. In addition, the new approach shifts the responsibility for directly assisting individuals with disabilities to all FEMA staff. GAO found that FEMA has taken some initial steps to provide training on the changes; however, it has not established a plan for delivering comprehensive disability-related training to all staff who will be directly interacting with individuals with disabilities. Developing a plan to train all staff would better position FEMA to achieve its intended goals and better equip deployed staff to identify and assist these survivors.
GAO has made seven recommendations to the FEMA Administrator via the Department of Homeland Security (DHS):
- Develop and publicize guidance for partners working to assist individuals who are older or have disabilities for requesting data and working with FEMA staff throughout the data sharing process to obtain Individual Assistance data, as appropriate.
- Implement new registration-intake questions that improve FEMA’s ability to identify and address survivors’ disability-related needs by, for example, directly soliciting survivors’ accommodation requests.
- Improve communication of registrants’ disability-related information across FEMA programs, such as by developing an alert within survivor files that indicates an accommodation request.
- Establish and disseminate a set of objectives for FEMA’s new disability integration approach.
- Communicate to Regional Administrators and Regional Disability Integration Specialists a written plan for implementing its new disability integration staffing approach, consistent with the objectives established for disability integration. Such a plan should include an implementation timeline and details on staff responsibilities, which regions could use to evaluate staff performance.
- Develop a plan for delivering training to FEMA staff that promotes competency in disability awareness. The plan should include milestones and performance measures, and outline how performance will be monitored.
- Develop a timeline for completing the development of new disability-related training the agency can offer to its partners that incorporates the needs of individuals with disabilities into disaster preparedness, response, and recovery operations.
DHS concurred with all recommendations except the third, and said FEMA is making plans for implementation this year and early next.
DHS did not concur with the third recommendation, to improve communication of registrants’ disability-related information across FEMA programs. Specifically, DHS noted that FEMA lacks specific funding to augment the legacy data systems that capture and communicate registration information. DHS further noted that FEMA began a long-term initiative in April 2017 to improve data management and exchange, and improve overall data quality and standardization. FEMA expects the initiative to include the development of a modern, cloud-based data storage system with a data analytics platform that will allow analysts, decision makers, and stakeholders more ready access to FEMA data. After the completion of this initiative, FEMA expects that efforts to share and flag specific disability-related data will be much easier.
GAO acknowledged FEMA’s concerns about using resources to change legacy systems when it has existing plans to replace those systems. However, it says the recommendation was not solely focused on system changes and that there are other cost-effective ways that are likely to improve communication of registrants’ disability-related information prior to implementing the system upgrades. For example, as noted in GAO’s report, FEMA officials handling different stages of the disaster assistance process may overlook disability-related needs recorded in the case file notes. FEMA could revise its guidance to remind program officials to review the notes to identify whether there is a record of any such needs. As FEMA moves ahead with its data improvement initiatives, GAO wants it to consider and ultimately implement technology changes, such as developing an alert within files that indicates an accommodation request.