When emergency managers and the disability community work closely together, it can help assistance reach a greater number of survivors, and change outcomes for individuals and communities after a disaster. After a series of storms and tornadoes that hit Mississippi in April and record-setting floods in May that brought widespread damage to lives and property – the importance of reaching out to the disability community was even more important.
Just after the disaster, we deployed a disability and integration team, led by a disability integration specialist, whose goal was to capitalize on the skills, knowledge, credibility and trust already in place with Mississippi’s disability leaders and utilize their networks to further outreach to impacted communities. In Missisippi, however, we noticed a problem: The percentage of people with access and functional needs applying for individual assistance did not match the demographics of the impacted population.
Regular conversations with disability leaders and state partners also highlighted the issue, and their feedback suggested that the low number of registrations most likely stemmed from:
- Lack of trust in the federal government to meet their needs.
- Fear they would lose their existing disability benefits if they received money from FEMA.
- The need for disability accommodations to facilitate registration.
Recognizing that the percentage of applicants was lower than expected, federal, state and local emergency management organizations collaborated to increase and expand their efforts to reach the disability community. Ultimately, we overcame some of these challenges by:
- Working collaboratively with disability organizations as trusted messengers who assisted us in expanding our outreach to survivors by visiting neighborhoods, distributing information in accessible formats at community gatherings, and networking with other trusted information sources, and
- Emphasizing the importance of applying for disaster assistance to all survivors, including those that had existing benefits from the federal government.
In the following days, we saw a steady increase in disaster assistance applications from people with access and functional needs – a testament to our outreach efforts to the disability community.
Making sure our message reaches and is accessible to all survivors is part of FEMA’s “whole community” approach to emergency management. This means planning for the actual makeup of a community, and making sure we work collaboratively to meet the needs of every disaster survivor regardless of age, economics, or accessibility requirements.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done in Mississippi to reach the entire community, and I encourage you to learn more about our recovery efforts at our disaster page.