Poor, disabled, non-English speakers less-served by FEMA after Harvey, Maria

The U.S. government’s emergency response to a pair of deadly hurricanes in 2017 may not have equitably served the most vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities, the less affluent and non-native English speakers, according to a report released Wednesday from an independent federal commission.

The study from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which killed 68 people in Texas, and Hurricane Maria, which killed 2,975 in Puerto Rico. It marked the first time the agency attempted to assess how well the Federal Emergency Management Agency met its obligation to provide aid without discriminating on the basis of race, nationality, disability, English proficiency, economic status or other factors.

The panel found that FEMA’s efforts, while extensive after the storms caused widespread damage within weeks of each other, fell short in providing timely relief and forced survivors to contend with delays caused by unclear guidelines on how to access government aid.

The difficulties were often compounded for the less affluent, people with disabilities, and Black and Latino residents, who were more likely to live in lower-lying areas with greater flooding damage and had greater difficulty accessing electricity and the internet.

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In Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, the problems were magnified by other factors. Among them: FEMA did not have enough Spanish-speaking staff members, 55 percent of homeowners on the island did not own titles to their properties, and contractors hired with federal funds often failed to complete their work, the report found.

In a statement included in the report, Commissioner Debo P. Adegbile said the manner in which federal aid was distributed after the storms “may not have sufficiently accomplished FEMA’s mission and may have run afoul of the agency’s mission under the Stafford Act,” the 1988 law that authorizes the federal government’s intervention in natural disasters.

Adegbile said it was difficult to fully assess FEMA’s civil rights compliance given that the agency does not collect sufficient demographic data on how federal assistance is administered and distributed. But he added that “some of the barriers to aid and accessibility are the direct result of the lack of preparedness, staffing issues, data tracking failures, lack of transparency of the aid application process, language access issues, and the lack of collaboration with nongovernmental organizations and community partners.”

The report was released a day after Puerto Rico marked the fifth anniversary of Maria, with the island again facing flash flooding, property damage and widespread power outages after Hurricane Fiona dumped more than 30 inches of rain this past weekend.

The commission found that FEMA, which had positioned supplies in Texas ahead of Harvey, was not as well prepared in Puerto Rico, a disparity that FEMA said was due in part to geographical challenges and a lack of capabilities within the territory’s local government.

Even before Fiona, Puerto Rico’s power grid was poised for failure

Some commissioners, however, questioned whether the island’s “second-class” status as a territory without congressional voting rights played a role. And the report also cited testimony from legal experts and housing advocates who said the federal government erected bureaucratic barriers that slowed aid to Puerto Rico, at a time when President Donald Trump was feuding with local leaders over whom to blame for delays in the emergency response on the island.

The report found that in the immediate aftermath of Maria, FEMA received more than 1.1 million applications for individual housing assistance in Puerto Rico and denied 60 percent of them. Many rejections were due to title documentation issues, but the commission noted that nothing in Puerto Rico’s laws requires homeowners to register their properties. In 2021, FEMA adopted new policies to make it easier for residents to prove ownership of their properties.

In Texas after Harvey, people with disabilities faced challenges including not having adequate accommodations after being forced into shelters; in many cases, those who vacated their homes remained in institutional settings rather than moving back, the commission found.

The report also cited testimony from advocates and housing experts who said government inspectors were more likely to reject relief claims in impoverished areas.

The commission recommended that FEMA streamline its application process for federal aid, hire more people who speak Spanish and other languages, focus its recovery efforts on the most vulnerable communities, improve coordination with other government agencies, and provide disability training to FEMA staff members.

They were still rebuilding, five years after Hurricane Maria. Then Fiona hit.

The Commission on Civil Rights is composed of four members appointed by the president and four by Congress, who serve six-year terms. Four of the current members are Democrats, including Chair Norma V. Cantú; three are Republicans; and one is an independent.

Some of the non-Democratic members challenged the commission’s findings.

Commissioner J. Christian Adams, a Republican, wrote that the report “puts the blame in the wrong place” by ascribing a racial motivation for the disparities. He argued that the real inequities in Puerto Rico were caused by its political status as a territory without full congressional representation.

“The report makes imaginary racial animus or phantom biases of the Trump administration into the cause of any failure or shortcoming,” Adams wrote. “In this, the report has failed.”

But Commissioner Michael Yaki, a Democrat, quoted Trump’s tweets and statements in his feud with Puerto Rican leaders as evidence that his administration was not fully engaged in the emergency response.

Yaki also faulted FEMA for “a very one-size-fits-all approach to disasters. Our nation, however, is too complex for a cookie cutter response. … For all the relief that FEMA does provide, it does leave people behind, people who are the most vulnerable, who have faced and continue to experience discrimination.”

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