Peters Introduces Bill to Strengthen Disaster Response Efforts for Minority Communities

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Gary Peters, Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced legislation to strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster response efforts for communities of color who often face barriers to securing federal aid following an emergency, such as the Coronavirus pandemic. Communities of color and other underserved communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus, underscoring a long history of disparities in health care access and disaster response. The Achieving Racial and Ethnic Equity in Disaster Response, Recovery, and Resilience Act would establish the Office of Equal Rights and Community Inclusion at FEMA to increase access to and improve the quality of disaster assistance for communities of color, and eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the delivery of disaster assistance.

“When a disaster strikes, minority communities often experience some of the most serious impacts, yet they are often the last to receive disaster relief assistance and receive smaller amounts than other communities,” said Senator Peters. “The ongoing Coronavirus public health emergency has once again highlighted longstanding inequities in our disaster response systems. We must do more to protect our most vulnerable and underserved communities. I’m proud to lead this crucial effort, which will help ensure equitable access to federal disaster aid before, during, and after an event and guarantee that every community can get the support they need when they need it most.”

As the United States continues to address the novel Coronavirus public health crisis, data indicates that Coronavirus is disproportionately affecting communities of color and exposing long-standing deficiencies in the nation’s health care and preparedness apparatus. For example, while African Americans make up 13.6% of Michigan’s population, they have represented a staggering 33% of confirmed cases and 40% of deaths from the virus.

In recent decades, FEMA’s disaster response efforts have been plagued by racial and socioeconomic disparities that have not been adequately addressed by Congress. Communities of color often receive less – and lower quality – disaster assistance. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, more than half of white respondents in Texas reported that they were able to get the assistance they needed from FEMA, while that number dropped to 32 percent for African American respondents.

The Achieving Racial and Ethnic Equity in Disaster Response, Recovery, and Resilience Act would create the Office of Equal Rights and Community Inclusion, charged with entering into agreements with and awarding grants to nonprofits working in communities of color. The office would be authorized to engage with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governmental entities. It would be required to regularly consult with advocacy organizations representing communities of color and indigenous human resource providers in communities of color to ensure their voices are being heard. Additionally, the office would develop data-based metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of activities aimed at reducing disparities in the provision of disaster assistance. The bill would require annual public reporting to ensure the office is held accountable for successful implementation of efforts to improve equity in all phases of the disaster—from immediate response to building resilience to future events.

As the Coronavirus public health emergency has continued to unfold, Senator Peters has fought to draw attention to the issue of racial disparities in the Coronavirus response. Peters recently helped introduce legislation to establish an interagency task force charged with identifying and addressing racial disparities impacting communities of color highlighted by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Peters also pressed FEMA to be more transparent with their efforts to address existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in their Coronavirus pandemic response and ensure vulnerable communities get the help they need. He pressed the Trump Administration’s Coronavirus Task Force to release comprehensive data about the racial and ethnic impact of the virus and introduced a bill requiring HHS to report demographic data about testing, treatment, and outcomes of the pandemic.

Below are statements in support of Senator Peters’ legislation:

“The Coronavirus pandemic is yet another chilling reminder of the racial disparities and discrimination that exist in the delivery of disaster relief in this country,” said Hilary O. Shelton, Director of the NAACP Washington Bureau and Senior Vice President for Policy and Advocacy. “African Americans and other communities of color suffer some of the most severe impacts when disasters strike, but are often among the last to receive assistance. I applaud Senator Peters for his leadership on this issue, and for his commitment to shining a light on the longstanding disparities in our nation’s health care and disaster response systems.”

“Communities of color are often the most severely impacted by widespread disasters, yet they continue to have very little access to assistance. This is compounded by the fact that the unique challenges they face are overlooked in disaster recovery,” said Hassan Jaber, President and CEO of ACCESS. “Federal disaster aid programs routinely fail to provide adequate support to these vulnerable communities. We welcome and appreciate Senator Peters’ leadership on this important issue, and for including and acknowledging the Middle East and North African communities’ unique needs by including them in this bill. We look forward to working with him as we continue to develop solutions that ensure every community receives the support they deserve in their hour of need.”

“COVID-19 has disproportionately devastated communities of color across the United States, and as is the case with many other disasters, the federal response to this pandemic has been marred by racial and ethnic disparities,” said Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League. “An Office of Equal Rights and Community Inclusion would represent an important first step in rectifying that history, and that government responds fairly and equitably to all communities when they need support. The National Urban League applauds Senator Peters’ effort to right this historic wrong, and his commitment to identifying and addressing the shortcomings in the federal government’s emergency response efforts.”