WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is launching an effort to contact up to 2.2 million applicants for federal disaster assistance to inform them that a federal appellate court ruling requires FEMA to release certain personally identifiable information. This information would normally be protected under the Privacy Act and the exemption for personal privacy under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
FEMA will send letters and make phone calls to notify people that the addresses of their disaster-damaged dwellings are included in the order, and must be released to certain media organizations. Information on the applicant notification timetable, distribution of information to the requesters; a state-by-state breakdown of disaster events, counties and disasters numbers may be found at www.fema.gov/individual/privacy.
The court ruling is related to a FOIA request from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Pensacola News-Journal and The News-Press of Fort Myers, Fla.The newspapers requested information about applicants who received disaster assistance and flood insurance payments following the 2004 Florida hurricanes. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel also asked for information on applicants in an additional 27 Presidentially declared disasters in eight states from 1998 to 2004.
The specific disaster events covered under the ruling include hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in 2004; Hurricane Isabel in 2003; Hurricane Floyd in 1999; Hurricane Georges in 1998; and 24 other major disasters. The states are Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.
FEMA takes seriously its responsibility to protect the privacy of each applicant for disaster assistance. In response to the request, FEMA provided a breakdown of the types of assistance provided to the individuals and households by state, county and zip code, but refused to produce the names and addresses because of Privacy Act concerns. The media organizations appealed and the court ordered the agency to release the addresses, but allowed it to withhold the applicants' names. FEMA will not release other kinds of Privacy Act information including disaster applicants' names and Social Security numbers.
However, if matched with the addresses, the previously released information would reveal in great detail, information about each individual applicant, such as the amount of assistance provided, insurance status, eligibility determinations and Small Business Administration application status.
Specifically, FEMA has already provided the following details to the news organizations on every Florida applicant in connection with the 2004 hurricane season - FEMA registration number, zip code and county; type and category of assistance; eligible or ineligible for assistance; dollar amount provided; renter or homeowner; cause of damage and insurance status on items claimed; line item descriptions of their personal property, clothing and miscellaneous items; type of damage and item-by-item damage to real property. The same details are being provided to the Sun-Sentinel for the additional disasters requested, as well as for those persons who filed flood insurance claims under the National Flood Insurance Program after the 2004 Florida hurricanes.
The court made its decision based on the unique circumstances surrounding the 2004 Florida hurricanes, and determined that the public interest in FEMA's disbursement of disaster aid in those circumstances outweighed the privacy interest of the individuals who received disaster assistance and flood insurance payments. FEMA will comply with the court order; however, the agency will continue to protect the names and addresses of disaster victims in the future under both FOIA and the Privacy Act.