July 28, 2020

Chair Titus Opening Remarks from Hearing on Experiences of Vulnerable Populations During Disasters

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Dina Titus (D-NV) during today’s hearing titled: “Experiences of Vulnerable Populations During Disaster.”

Chair Titus:

Before we get started today, I want to recognize the loss of our friend and colleague, Congressman John Lewis.

Congressman Lewis dedicated his life in service to this nation and to the goal of a more perfect union.

He famously said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”

It is in that spirit that we hold today’s hearing, which focuses on the experiences of vulnerable and underserved populations during disasters.

Disaster survivors experience varying degrees of impact and assistance as a result of factors such as race, ethnicity, gender identity or expression, immigration status, physical or mental ability, and socio-economic status.

As is the case too often in this country, the most vulnerable among us are the most adversely affected during times of hardship. We’re seeing this play out in communities across the United States with respect to ongoing disaster recovery and the coronavirus pandemic.

The continued failures by our emergency preparedness apparatus at every level of government, to account for the well-being of certain communities prior to, during, and in the wake of disasters is unacceptable and must be addressed.

Whether it’s due to underfunded public transportation; or insufficient means to pay for a personal vehicle, fuel, and alternative means for shelter; vulnerable populations in the path of disaster often lack the resources to evacuate.

While taking refuge in congregate sheltering during a storm, individuals with disabilities or mobility issues frequently face accessibility challenges due to a lack of proper accommodations.

For instance, in wildfire-ravaged communities in California, people experiencing homelessness were told by FEMA that they were not eligible for sheltering assistance to escape heat and smoke under the Stafford Act because their homelessness was a pre-existing condition. 

Some of our most vulnerable populations continue to be overlooked or neglected by existing FEMA programs.

During this Subcommittee’s hearing back in March with FEMA Administrator Gaynor, we raised some of these concerns.

I noted then that FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination was established over a decade ago by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, but the Trump Administration’s attention to and engagement with people with disabilities is lackluster to say the least.

Just this past Sunday we recognized the 30th anniversary of enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Yet, it is troubling when you consider how far the federal government still has to go to live up to the intent of this landmark legislation and do right by people with disabilities.

I’d like to conclude by saying that the spectrum of communities represented by our witnesses today is by no means exhaustive, but we hope they can provide some perspective so that we might take a step forward in making disaster response efforts and assistance more inclusive, more right, more fair, and more just.

A livestream of today’s hearing can be found here.