By Michaela May, 3L Boston University School of Law and DAP volunteer
FEMA announced plans to donate 1,338 pounds of Mardi Gras beads to Arc of Greater New Orleans. Arc, a non-profit group serving individuals with intellectual disabilities, employs its clientele to sort, repackage and sell the beads. The proceeds pay their wages.
FEMA’s donation to Arc comes shortly after a CBS Evening News report in which several current and former FEMA employees alleged that recovery efforts in New Orleans have been hampered by an office atmosphere that one employee described as “toxic.” In the report, an employee alleged racial discrimination, cronyism, and sexual harassment as commonplace in FEMA’s New Orleans office.
This bead donation, while supportive of a long-standing NOLA community tradition that does help many, falls far short of addressing the agency’s neglected responsibilities toward New Orleans and other post-disaster disability communities. FEMA’s missteps during Hurricane Katrina, and continued inaction after hurricanes Ike and Gustav, have been particularly hard on people with disabilities. Considering FEMA’s record on disability issues, the donation rings hollow.
Alarmingly, FEMA has made few strides since Hurricane Katrina to account for individuals with additional needs. In the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, Congress created a Disability Coordinator position. The coordinator has at least 10 statutory responsibilities.
Unfortunately, the lone FEMA staff member dedicated to helping this vulnerable population has no support staff whatsoever. Disability Coordinator Cindy Lou Daniel has been on the job for nearly two years and FEMA continues to fail to comply with a congressional mandate that requires the agency to assist people with disabilities during disasters. Ms. Daniel simply lacks the resources to get the job done.
In a 2008 letter, then-FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison agreed with the recommendation of FEMA’s National Advisory Council Special Needs Subcommittee that regional disability coordinator positions are necessary. Indeed, these 10 regional coordinators are necessary to ensure that each region can effectively meet the needs of the individuals residing in it. Unfortunately, Paulison indicated that the positions would not be included in FEMA’s budget until FY 2011.
To truly serve disability communities, FEMA should move Ms. Daniel’s position to the FEMA Administrator’s Office to ensure direct reporting to the FEMA Administrator and to prevent the position from getting buried in bureaucracy. Regional disability coordinators should report directly to the National Disability Coordinator, and the positions should be implemented by FY 2010—or sooner. Regional coordinators can ensure that individuals with additional needs are accommodated, taking into account each region’s vulnerabilities and how they are likely to affect those with additional needs.
See Disaster Accountability Project Testimony on this issue.
The beads are undoubtedly a nice gesture, but the Gulf Coast’s disability communities need much more than beads from the agency.