FEMA Makes Special Effort for Those with Special Needs

March 26, 2011 by  

AUSTIN, Texas — Disasters can be hard for anyone to deal with, but for those with disabilities, illnesses and other special needs, disasters present a real challenge. That is why the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) waspreparing to help Texans who have special needs even before Hurricane Ike roared across the Gulf Coast on Sept. 13.

For the Hurricane Ike recovery effort, FEMA anticipated the temporary housing needs of the physically handicapped, ensuring that its inventory of manufactured homes included a large portion of park models that meet Uniform Federal AccessibilityStandards (UFAS), the federal guidelines for compliance with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As a result of the planning effort, FEMA is providing hundreds of ADA-compliant park models and mobile homes as part of the first waves of manufactured homes arriving in the disaster communities.

“Finding suitable temporary housing for every eligible disaster victim is one of FEMA’s primary missions,” said Federal Coordinating Officer Sandy Coachman. “We are working to ensure that the process is not delayed just because someonemight have a special need.”

Additionally, for the first time in any disaster recovery effort, FEMA and its Texas partner, the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management (GDEM), are taking steps to provide information and alerts to all of those whose disability affects how theyreceive information: the deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind and the deaf-blind.

In cooperation with one of the companies providing these kinds of services, San Antonio-based Deaf Link, FEMA/GDEM Recovery News updates and other alerts are sent via the Internet in American Sign Language (ASL), in audio and in a text format thatcan be converted to Braille with special equipment. Additionally, GDEM has posted videos in ASL and voiceovers on a number of hurricane-preparedness and -response topics.

“Texas is a national pioneer in the use of this advanced technology to communicate with the visually and hearing-impaired,” said State Coordinating Officer Joan Haun. “It’s a good feeling to know we are among the first to break downthe barriers to these communities.”

Also for the first time, FEMA is using Deaf Link (www.deaflink.com) communications equipment to help deaf Texans apply for disaster assistance. The first DisasterRecovery Center to use the technology is in Houston at the Ellington Joint Reserve Base.

The program utilizes videoconferencing equipment to connect a hearing recovery center aide and a deaf person, both at the recovery center, with an ASL interpreter at Deaf Link’s secure communications center. This live, interactive service isavailable on demand at the recovery center.

“We’re getting a lot of big ‘thank-yous’ on behalf of FEMA,” said Kay Chiodo, Deaf Link president and CEO. “FEMA really is reaching out to everyone in this disaster.”

Using Internet technology is just one way FEMA is contacting Texans with special needs. When disaster strikes, FEMA’s scores of Community Relations specialists move into the affected areas, often becoming the first line of assistance to frightenedand confused victims.

“Sometimes all people want is someone to talk to, someone who understands their fears and frustrations, someone to point the way to help,” said Coachman. “Face-to-face meetings are vital in assuring residents that we’ll work with themto help get their lives back on track and identify any special needs as quickly as possible.”

When field specialists identify eligible residents whose condition — physical, mental, medical or emotional — affects their ability to take responsibility for disaster recovery on their own, they relay their information directly to the State/FEMAJoint Field Office in Austin. The office has a team dedicated exclusively to aiding eligible Texans with special needs.

If housing is the issue, FEMA’s Individual Assistance specialists go to work to put special needs individuals and families into the appropriate temporary housing, whether that means an ADA-compliant manufactured home, a handicapped-accessible hotelroom or a care facility for the ill or aged.

Following are a few of the ways FEMA has helped Texans with special needs during the Hurricane Ike disaster:

  • Galveston: Shortly after Ike struck, FEMA discovered a father and his 14- and 8-year-old sons living in their car. The family declined FEMA’s offer to put them in the nearest available hotel because it was too far from the hospitalwhere the children’s seriously ill mother lay. FEMA was able to locate the last remaining unit in a nearby mobile home park, although a tree in front of the unit left no room to construct a ramp for the mother’s wheelchair. Upon learning of thefamily’s plight, the park owner had the tree removed, and the ramp was constructed in time to welcome the children’s mother home from the hospital.
  • Galveston County: FEMA discovered a family of 14, including a 2-year-old and a 9-month-old with serious medical conditions, living in a camper and tents in the driveway of their damaged home. With the help of neighbors who pitchedin to remove a fence that was in the way, FEMA was able to place two mobile homes on the property and move the family in within three days.
  • Galveston County: A young woman who is deaf-blind took refuge in a community shelter as a result of the hurricane. By the time her mother arrived to pick her up, the young woman knew exactly what to do to apply for FEMA assistance.”I got an alert from FEMA telling me what I have to do,” she told her stunned mother. The young woman had read her FEMA alerts in Braille with the help of Deaf Link.

FEMA teams also work one-on-one with other federal, state and local agencies, as well as dozens of community, religious, business and volunteer organizations, to aid eligible special needs Texans thrown into turmoil by the disaster.

“They build on these groups’ existing networks to expedite assistance and get the word out to people with special needs,” said Coachman.

These agencies and organizations provide essential services to Texans with special needs, including replacing lost or destroyed medications, eyeglasses, hearing aids, wheelchairs and walkers; providing emergency generators for oxygen tanks; takingindividuals to health-care centers for dialysis or other life-sustaining treatments; delivering food, clothing and blankets to special needs victims; finding care-givers for those in emergency housing; and much, much more.

FEMA coordinates the federal government’s role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made, including acts of terror.


FEMA, 500 C Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20472
Disaster Assistance: (800) 621-FEMA
Release Number: 1791-251


Comments are closed.