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Saturday, September 03, 2005

What can be done

My wife (prior to her current job) spent over ten years providing disaster legal assistance. Based upon some things I have learned from her, here is a summary of some of what can be done:
There have been a number of federally declared disaster legal services over the last several decades - Hurricanes Andrew, Iniki; LA unrest in 92, Midwest, CA and Texas floods and fires in the 90s, etc. Legal services and community advocates previously sued and negotiated a national class action settlement with FEMA to improve their response, training and processes, helped develop national training curricula, and worked with FEMA and state officials on the ground setting up disaster assistance centers, and on strategies and implementation plans for longer term housing and economic development for affected regions. Folks in New York used some of this experience and material in connection with the post 9/11 disaster response, which was a very different context in terms of political will.

Unfortunately it seems that the folks "in charge" in DC now and in the affected states are not yet doing a wide range of things they have the authority and responsibility for under the Stafford Act. It's horrific on so many levels, not the least of which is that experienced disaster staff actually can do much to alleviate uneccesary death/suffering, and to promote long term recovery. Army generals, veteran FEMA administrators and federal and state elected officials are capable of marshaling needed resources in advance, and immediately and effectively, and have done so in some very large scale disasters in the past. It's sickening (and rage provoking) to witness such a tragedy.

Short and intermediate term assistance needs to begin once the first responders for immediate needs have done their work- Red Cross, Salvation Army, national guard/armed services mobilization, medical and public health responses. These efforts should begin to gear up now and over the next few weeks (and over the months and years to come).

For example, USDA can and should be asked by state/locals to issue Disaster Food Stamps and replace issuances/value of lost food, once electricity is restored for folks. This has apparently already been done in Louisiana, but the program is currently set to expire September 9, and will likely need to be extended, and broadened to other areas. (Note: USDA was sued in Los Angeles in 1992 for failing to issue disaster food stamps; after the Northridge Earthquake in 94 issuance was delayed but happened without litigation. On July 8, the USDA rushed food stamp delivery ahead of Hurricane Dennis, a Category 3 storm that hit the Florida coast. See USDA guide for disasters. (pdf) (html))

There are a host of FEMA, other federal and state programs- rental and mortgage assistance, SBA loans, funds to replace lost belongings, mental health services, medical services (in Louisiana, Disaster Medicaid info can be obtained at 1-888-342-6207)/coverage, short and long term replacement housing, funds for damages sustained by businesses and even non-profits [out of date link] --- in short, there is a lot of discretion, and lots of possibilities, in federal disaster work, all largely dependent on political will. (Note: these links are not necessarily the most updated resources for disaster and emergency services, but were ones I found that seemed applicable.)

Unfortunately, many programs don't get authorized or implemented unless there is advocacy to get them in place, and then to make sure the $$s actually get to where they need to go.

You can help by making keeping an eye on these federal relief programs and making your peers (and representation in government) aware of how resources get allocated over time.
If someone affected by the disaster needs help or more information, Louisiana disaster relief services can be reached at 1-888-LAHELPU (1-888-524-3578).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Rob,
The pastor at our local church said to me on Sunday that his experience has been that many people do not know HOW to get the help they need from the government and that figuring out how to disseminate that information is likely to be one of the big challenges in the wake of Katrina.
You post will likely be very helpful - I'll "pass it on."
All my best,
Teresa Twomey