Caring for Special Needs During Disasters: Senate subcommittee asks, who’s accountable?

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caring for special needs during a disasterCongresswoman Laura Richardson, chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness and Response, pushed for an increase in accountability, resources, outreach and planning for providing quick and direct help for people who may require special aid during disasters, such as people with limited transportation options, elderly with mobility and hearing challenges, the poor, people with disabilities, children, and individuals with varying levels of language proficiency.

During yesterday’s subcommittee hearing, “Caring for Special Needs during Disasters: What’s being done for Vulnerable Populations?”, Congresswoman Richardson questioned the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) ability to meet the needs of these substantial populations and reached out to representatives and leaders for organizations and agencies who are concerned about and advocate on behalf of these special needs groups.

“When it comes to disaster planning, the needs for all are great; therefore, those with greater accessibility issues should not be left as a second or separate thought for window dressing,” Congresswoman Richardson said. “The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 included many reforms to provide FEMA with the necessary tools and leadership to integrate “need” related issues into the overall emergency preparedness plan.”

One of the key highlights of the hearing was Congresswoman Richardson’s early questioning that outlined, for the record, FEMA’s shortsighted implementation of only budgeting $150,000 for a department to serve 300 million residents across the United States. Congresswoman Richardson successfully, in a bipartisan way, gained a commitment from the subcommittee’s ranking member, Congressman Michael Rogers, and Homeland Security Chairman Congressman Bennie Thompson to advise the President and Administration of the Congressional concerns.

Further, Congresswoman Richardson emphasized the unique needs of children during a disaster and how that group can have needs that are unique from other vulnerable populations.

“If a disaster strikes during operating school hours, it would leave the students, school administrators and staff and parents in a situation where more than safety drills are needed,” Congresswoman Richardson added. “In the 37th Congressional District, there are hundreds of schools ranging from preschool through college located within 20 miles of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, major transportation corridors and other possible targets of large-scale hostile attacks, not to mention the real possibility of earthquakes or other natural disasters and public health emergencies. With these circumstances, it is vital that the schools in high risk or rural communities across the nation be involved with the planning and are ready to act quickly and effectively if a disaster happens.”

At the hearing, Los Angeles County Office of Education Deputy Superintendent Jon Grundy voiced his support for Congresswoman Richardson’s “Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Preparedness Planning Act” (H.R. 4898), which would establish a competitive program to make emergency preparedness planning and implementation grants to local education districts and agencies located in areas under a high threat of terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or public health emergencies, and he pointed out the high level of importance in having comprehensive plans and resources in place in his district before, during and after an emergency.

“Although most schools and school districts have emergency plans in place, they are generally not as comprehensive as they should be and not well coordinated with other agencies and school districts,” Grundy said. “This is primarily due to the fact that they are not given an active role in regional emergency planning, they lack the expertise of many other public agencies in emergency planning and they do not have sufficient funding to do the necessary planning and preparation. While we believe we do a good job of coordinating emergency planning and response among Los Angeles County school districts, there is still a need for better training and closer collaboration among county agencies. For this reason, we urge the creation of a system of school alert and response networks on a local or regional basis that would more closely coordinate with emergency response agencies and school districts, not only in LA County, but in all regions of the country that are under a high threat of terrorist attack, natural disaster, or public health emergency.”

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