WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Alex Padilla (D-CA) introduced legislation to strengthen the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster response efforts for underserved communities that often face barriers to securing federal aid following an emergency, such as flooding, wildfires, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Achieving Equity in Disaster Response, Recovery, and Resilience Act would establish the Office of Civil Rights, Equity, and Inclusion (OCREI) at FEMA to increase access to and improve the quality of disaster assistance for, among others, minority, rural, and disabled communities. The office would be dedicated to reducing disparities in the delivery of disaster assistance.
“We have repeatedly seen that when marginalized and rural communities face disasters – they are not only the most exposed to damage and the least able to recover financially – but they also often have more difficulty obtaining assistance from the federal government,” said Senator Peters. “From severe weather events in Michigan and across the nation that have devastated families and businesses – to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic – recent emergencies have shown we must do more to protect our most vulnerable and underserved communities. This bill will help ensure that our federal government is giving all communities equitable access to disaster assistance.”
“From wildfires to floods, natural disasters disproportionately impact marginalized and underserved communities, and these communities often face additional challenges in receiving federal disaster assistance,” said Senator Padilla. “We need to close these gaps and improve equity in disaster relief efforts. This legislation will empower FEMA to work closely with underserved communities in California and across the country and help reduce disparities in the delivery of disaster assistance.”
Underserved communities such as minority, rural, and disabled communities regularly receive less, and lower quality disaster assistance, even though they are also often disproportionately affected by disasters. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit underserved and minority communities the hardest. The senators’ bill would establish a high-level office dedicated to understanding and advocating for the needs of underserved communities and coordinating the federal response so that the delivery of disaster assistance is equitable.
The Achieving Equity in Disaster Response, Recovery, and Resilience Act would establish the OCREI at FEMA to improve access to and the quality of disaster assistance for underserved communities, and eliminate disparities in the delivery of disaster assistance to these communities. This bill would also classify rural communities as underserved communities and task this office at FEMA with reducing the disparities in the delivery of disaster assistance to those communities as well. The bill requires the OCREI to evaluate FEMA programs and activities to promote equity for underserved communities, enter into agreements with and award grants to nonprofits working to support underserved communities, and engage with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governmental entities and advocacy organizations in underserved communities on a regular basis. The bill also streamlines efforts to ensure a coordinated approach across FEMA to protect the rights and needs of individuals with disabilities in disaster response. Finally the legislation would require public reporting to ensure the office is held accountable for successful implementation of efforts to improve equity in all phases of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.
Below are statements in support of senators’ legislation:
“This legislation will improve the quality of disaster assistance provided by FEMA and help deliver it to the communities most in need of support,” said National Rural Electric Cooperative Association CEO Jim Matheson. “It will provide an advocate for underserved communities that can least afford the heavy costs of disaster recovery, including rural communities and low-income families served by electric cooperatives. We are grateful to Sen. Peters for introducing this important bill.”
“We have seen time and time again how natural disasters, pandemics, and acts of terrorism have disproportionately devastated communities of color across the United States and how responses to these tragedies have been marred by racial and ethnic disparities,” said Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League. “An Office of Civil Rights, Equity, and Inclusion would represent an important first step in rectifying that history, and ensuring that the federal government responds fairly and equitably to all communities when they need support. The National Urban League applauds Chairman Peters’ effort to right this historic wrong, and his commitment to identifying and addressing the shortcomings in the federal government’s emergency response efforts.”
“We commend this piece of legislation for recognizing and addressing two crucial realities. One, that climate change is real and it requires a full-scope effort to prepare our cities, neighborhoods, and homes for disaster scenarios and emergency events. Two, that the Middle Eastern and North African community is uniquely vulnerable during such scenarios and events, due in large part to systemic disinvestment from the broader communities in which we live,” said CEO of ACCESS, Maha Freij. “The Office of Civil Rights, Equity, and Community Inclusion promises to improve the quality of disaster assistance and expand access to include the communities that have historically been hit the hardest.”
“Ensuring that critical disaster preparedness, response, and recovery support reaches the families and businesses who have been historically underserved is critical to helping those who often experience climate and disaster impacts first and worst,” said Jessie Ritter, senior director of water resources and coastal policy for the National Wildlife Federation. “Thank you to Senator Gary Peters for his leadership on this important legislation, which will work to advance equity and justice within FEMA and for all communities it serves.”
“Natural disasters and the pandemic have had a significant impact on communities of color – its clear disparities still exist in our federal disaster response efforts,” said Yumeka Rushing, chief of strategy for the NAACP. “The Black community and other marginalized communities often face disproportionate effects when disaster strikes, but often don’t receive equal assistance to help recover from floods, wildfires, and severe weather events. We applaud Senator Peters for his continued leadership on this issue, and for his commitment to ensuring that our nation’s disaster response is equitable for every community. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.”
“We applaud Senator Peters for elevating the debate around disasters and emergencies disproportionately impacting low-income and minority communities across America. Equitable recovery has traditionally been a challenge,” said Michele Stockwell, Executive Director of Bipartisan Policy Center Action. “Lower income populations have fewer financial resources and, as a result, are more reliant on governmental assistance to address their recovery needs. It is critical that the design and implementation of the federal government’s response and recovery programs effectively address the needs of low-income and minority communities.”