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Hurricane Katrina and Disability:The National Council on Disability Outlines Short-Term and Long-Term Needs to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

September 19, 2005

The Honorable Michael Chertoff
Secretary of Homeland Security
Naval Security Station
Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues, NW
Washington, DC 20528

Dear Secretary Chertoff:

Just as you are, the National Council on Disability (NCD) is concerned about disaster relief, recovery, and reconstruction efforts in the Gulf Coast areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. A disproportionate number of the Hurricane Katrina evacuees and survivors are people with disabilities whose needs for basic necessities are compounded by chronic health conditions and functional impairments. Katrina has caused tens of thousands people with disabilities to be evacuated or displaced by Katrina. People with disabilities affected by Katrina may not ever be able to return to their communities-of-origin.

People with disabilities have had to leave behind their homes, circles of support, service networks, durable medical equipment, service animals, and assistive technologies. Many have spent years putting their networks of supports services in place.

Many evacuees and displaced individuals with disabilities will need to relocate several times from region-to-region and state-to-state over the coming months. As a consequence, they will not be able to easily recreate the life-sustaining service/support networks they need to survive each day. For these reasons, NCD believes there is a dire need for urgent action by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to assist people with disabilities affected by Hurricane Katrina. NCD offers you and your agency the following recommendations:

For the next several months:

  1. Establish a Point Person on Disability who reports directly to the Secretary and who interacts directly with the DHS senior leadership team and vested with the responsibility, authority, and resources for providing overall day-to-day leadership, guidance and coordination for emergency preparedness, disaster relief and recovery operations of the federal government on behalf of Americans with disabilities. The Point Person should be a qualified senior-level person, and should be in regular contact with other members of the DHS senior staff as well as the members of the Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities, state and local authorities, and citizens, as necessary.
  2. Develop and then implement a coordinated Federal Disability Recovery Plan for Hurricane Katrina that focuses particularly on people with disabilities.
  3. Establish a Hurricane Katrina Disability Access Advisory Group, made up of qualified people with disabilities and others with disability-specific disaster experience, who meet regularly with senior officials to help craft the Katrina-recovery plan, share real time information from the Gulf Coast region, as well as to discuss events and challenges and progress.
  4. Use all available ‘on the ground personnel’ available to provide funds and target resources that specifically meet the identified and critical needs of Katrina survivors with disabilities, including:
  • assisting with the restoration of the organizations that serve them;
  • identifying accessible temporary and permanent housing and addressing the specific requests being made by leaders in the devastated areas and those in the areas that people with disabilities are being evacuated to;
  • ensuring the effective coordination with social services, health services, education services, and other human service providers and agencies throughout the recovery and restoration process;
  • ensuring the use of accessible communications technology for people with disabilities during the region’s recovery from this disaster to help assess damage, collect information, and deploy supplies; and
  • ensuring that the response to and the recovery from Hurricane Katrina complies with Federal law requiring nondiscrimination and accessibility, including the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

For the next several years:

  1. Recovery, rebuilding and resettlement operations must have the appropriate resources, medical equipment, supplies, and training to address the needs of people with disabilities. Many individuals with disabilities will require accessible housing, appropriate health services, and assistive technologies. At the very outset and during all its phases, these operations should include in an integral way people with disabilities with experience and expertise on these matters.
  2. Recovery, rebuilding, and resettlement personnel must be educated and trained in the field, on how to support the independence and dignity of persons with disabilities in the months and years following Hurricane Katrina. People with disabilities should be included in the development of the response personnel, and should be supported by the appropriate accommodations.
  3. A universal design approach should be followed to meet the needs of people with disabilities affected by recovery, rebuilding, and resettlement efforts in the Gulf Coast region affected by Katrina. The Federal Government should mandate universal design and full accessibility for all new construction in the region affected by Hurricane Katrina.
  4. Disability organizations must be joined with all Hurricane Katrina recovery, rebuilding, and resettlement government (and non-government) operations and be relied upon for ongoing advice, guidance, and leadership.

NCD is deeply concerned for all of the citizens who are now homeless as a result of Hurricane Katrina devastation, many of whom have disabilities and who are older Americans who experience a high rate of disabling conditions. NCD continues to offer our support and assistance to all branches of government in their ongoing work to help people rebuild their lives.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We appreciate your personal commitment to insuring the recovery of all those affected by this catastrophic disaster, including those with disabilities.


Lex Frieden
National Council on Disability