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Governmental Activities on

Accessible Emergency Notification and Communication

Daniel W. Sutherland

Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
U. S. Department of Homeland Security

 

 

       I wanted to thank Gallaudet and Judy Harkins for putting on this conference in this beautiful place on this critically important issue.  You put this together well before Katrina and Rita and Wilma and all of the rest of the disasters we experienced this year.  You have certainly hit an issue that was important way before that, and I think that it's much more obviously important to people now.  I do think that we have an opportunity now to talk about these issues, and we will have more open doors than we had before.  And it's our responsibility, I certainly feel, and I hope that others of you feel as well, over these next few months to walk through the doors that are opened.  Because they'll close again.  People will forget what happened and move on, so we need to talk about these issues while we can and come up with concrete solutions.

 

       Katrina:  I want to talk about the impact of this particular hurricane to the disability community.  It's broader than the topic that you are addressing these two days, but I want to try to address it as well.

 

       First, demographic information:  We looked at Biloxi, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama.  In both cities the population of people with disabilities is about 25% of the total population.  We looked at the city of New Orleans.  This is a slide that just shows the map of the state of Louisiana, and it says that almost 250,000 residents of the city of New Orleans describe themselves as disabled according to the 2000 census.  That's about 21% of the population of the city.

 

       Let me break that down just a little bit for you.  In New Orleans, almost 25,000 people answered the census stating that they had a "long-lasting condition of blindness, deafness, or severe vision or hearing impairment." There were over 100,000 people that had a condition that "substantially limits," (they use this terminology because it tracks the Americans With Disabilities Act) basic physical activity like walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying.  Another 65,000 people are categorized as having some sort of mental disability, or categorize themselves as having what the census referred to as a mental disability.  And then 55,000 people said that they had some sort of long-lasting condition that made it difficult for them to dress and bathe and to get around in their own home.

 

       Let me just go into more depth on the background.  A very interesting poll was done by people who were in the Astrodome, the Reliance Center, and other large facilities in Houston.  The question was, "Why didn't you leave when you had the chance to?"

They asked essentially, "What was the biggest reason you did not leave?" There were multiple answers, but 37% said “I just didn't want to leave.”  Okay.  We understand that.  Fine. 

 

       Now, 22% said “I was physically unable to leave.”  And 23% said "I had to care for someone unable to leave."  Those two numbers add up to 45% of the people who were sheltered in Houston.  They were there because they could not get out of New Orleans. 

 

       I don't know that all 45% would be categorized or would qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act as people with disabilities, but that's telling us the size and scope of this issue, and in my judgment this really changes the paradigms that we've been looking at for emergency managers: about 45% of the people who were there, were there because of disability. 

 

       The National Organization on Disability just published a report.  I really highly commend it to you.  It's very well written and crisp.  It's on the Elizabeth Davis Associates table out there in the lobby exhibit.  They studied the situation for people with disabilities in in shelters.  They concluded that the most underserved group in shelters, were those who were deaf or hard-of-hearing.  According to their research, Which was based on a representative sample, less than 30% of the shelters studied had access to American Sign Language interpreters.  Eighty percent didn't have TTYs.  I guess that's probably not a surprise.  Sixty percent did not have TVs with open captioning capabilities.  And only 56% had areas where the oral announcements were posted in visual form.  This meant that the deaf and hard of hearing had no access to the vital flow of information within shelters.

 

       Let me show you a few photographs that graphically illustrate the issues that went on with regard to people with disabilities.  (link to slides)  This a photograph probably of a nursing home, folks who were evacuated into a parking garage; another shows a man in a wheelchair, an amputee, who obviously is in great distress; a photograph that appeared in "The Miami Herald" -- and it's very striking -- of two New Orleans police officers fully armed looking down at two young men on the ground, in probably a curfew area, and this is what the caption of the article says: "New Orleans police officers force two young men to the ground to find out if they're armed before allowing them to proceed past the Paris Avenue exit of I-10.  The two men explain that  they're deaf and need to read lips to communicate." I think this is not a surprise to any of us who dealt with law enforcement in the deaf community over time.  You've seen this situation before.

 

       This is a photograph of a Texas game warden carrying the prosthetic legs of an individual while they try to evacuate people from the Tulane Hospital; a photograph of a man in a wheelchair waiting at the local pharmacy to get in to try to get access to medications; a photograph of a young man who has significant mobility impairments and had to be carried out of his home.  They're walking through two or three feet of water.

 

       This is one that probably doesn't need a lot of description, does it?  This is the Houston Astrodome, and it's a handmade sign that says "Deaf Section."  It’s hard to know what to say about that really. 

 

       Claudia Gordon from my office took the next two photos when she was in Baton Rouge.  As you know, they’re creating new mobile-home or manufactured-housing communities to house people for the next number of months before they can hopefully get back to their real, permanent homes.  This photo shows a manufactured home that was put up, and Claudia was able to work with them to recognize that there were people who were in wheelchairs who had to get into some of these homes -- and this wasn't going to work. 

 

       Because we did not have in place in the pipeline manufactured housing that is accessible, they had to hire three guys who had to stick-build an enormous ramp, taking quite some time and certainly quite a bit of expense.  But here is the good news:  I think that there were six families able to use the housing when the Baton Rouge center closed -- five that went in to this community, and another that went in another place.

 

       Although this was good news, it also illustrates one of the challenges that we face.

 

       There's a lot of hope in this picture:  It shows a 105-year-old woman in a wheelchair being evacuated from the convention center in New Orleans holding hands with a young girl five years old as they walk out.  It also reminds us of a lot of the problems that we saw in those days.  You can see the police officers in the back with rifles, and these are things that shouldn't have happened and totally, again, blew the paradigm that emergency managers I think had about this security issue.  They were just inexplicable and really affected the way that they were able to proceed.

 

       The final picture is the worst-case scenario. These are a picture of a man and wife who owned a nursing home who have been indicted for negligent homicide.  Thirty-four people died in their nursing home.  I am not sure of the facts.  But this newspaper article said that they didn't evacuate them from their nursing home, and this is the worst-case scenario.

 

       Let me step back just a little bit.  In July 2004, well before all of this happened, President Bush signed an executive order which created for the first time a mechanism for all of us in the Federal Government who work on these issues to be coordinated, and work together.  The executive order lays out a broad policy statement that people with disabilities must be integrated into the emergency preparedness and planning process in the Federal Government.  You can pick up a copy of the executive order on the table that the Department of Homeland Security is sponsoring out in the lobby.  We have a report from The Interagency Council and you can read it there.  The Secretary of Homeland Security, formerly Secretary Ridge, and now Secretary Chertoff, chairs the Council, and I work with the Council on a day-to-day basis.

 

       The Council recognized that we had seven or eight areas of work we needed to focus on.  This chart lays out the different areas that we identified that we needed to work on.  Some are in the area of research.  I know that Steve Tingus, director of NIDRR, is going to talk about research after my remarks.  He is leading up that work that we're doing.  Another group is working on the issues involved in evacuation from the workplace.  And that group has produced a report which is, on our table out in the lobby.  If you wanted to give your building manager an idea of what should they be thinking about -- most building managers don't know anything about these issues -- here is a report that you can at least give them to help them to start thinking, a template of questions that they could ask.  And that group will continue its work.

 

       There is a group within the Council working on transportation issues, and another on health and social service issues which have been so prominent in Katrina.  And a variety of others.  Let me focus on one which is relevant to you, which is emergency communications.  We developed a group that just focused on the communication issues that might come in times of emergencies.  Basically, what they do is develop policies and programs regarding the emergency communication needs of individuals with disabilities before, during, and after an emergency.  This group is chaired by the FCC; Cheryl King of the FCC is our driving force there, but at least 12 other federal agencies also participate.  I tried to add up all of the people that participate there; it's a wide participation in this group.  So this is a really great way for us to in a federal government coordinated way to address some of these issues.

 

       Just a couple of things that the emergency communications members were able to do, that the FCC particularly did, were some enforcement actions which were notable.  The FCC had six notices of apparent liability for forfeiture in this past year, for failure to provide visual forms of emergency information on television.  Please find Cheryl in the hallway, and she will tell you more about the details of that.  The other thing that they worked on was the priority restoration status for telecommunications relay service providers.  As I understand it, and I am not an expert in this, but basically if the phone systems all go down after a 9/11, certain people are able to be restored more quickly.  There is a priority listing, and the relay services are now in the priority listing.

 

       So these are great first steps from this group.  I wanted to tell you what we've done in the context of Katrina, and then finish and see if people have questions.

      

When Katrina hit, we realized that we really needed to create a ninth group on the Interagency Council, which we've called an incident management group.  This group met on a daily or every-other-day basis, usually by telephone, to talk as federal agencies about what problems we saw in the past 24 hours that somebody has got to solve.

 

       We also got on the phone in large conference calls with as many as 100 lines opened to people from the affected region, disability service providers, who could call in and give their cries for help.  We need this.  We need that.  And then some of us in the Federal Government will say, I will take that one.  You take that one.  We tried to split it up.

 

       This council gives us the capacity to give advice to the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and others.  We have a mechanism in place and we were able to communicate directly with them.  One of the things that Secretary Chertoff directed us to do is send a subject-matter expert to the joint field office in Baton Rouge and in Austin.  Cheryl King of the FCC went to Austin, and Claudia Gordon of DHS went to Baton Rouge.  They both have been gone for months.  I haven't seen either of them for about a month.  We've been talking on a daily basis or exchanging e-mails regularly, but they've both been on the ground and just having somebody right there in the meetings, seeing what's going on has been so helpful.  And it's clear to us it's something that needs to be put in place on a permanent basis.

 

       I have five or six slides of things that we've done.  I won't read them all, but just pick out a few of them.  The FCC issued reminders to local TV stations early on.  I can't remember when it was.  Within a week or so after Katrina hit.  It was about the need to provide closed captions, or ASL interpretations during emergency programming.  They issued a public notice on that.

 

       We were able to facilitate the delivery of durable medical equipment.  There were websites that were put up, FEMA websites and others that were supposed to help facilitate the movement of durable medical equipment or donations and other things.  And we were able, with our Section 508 team at our department, to make those accessible.

 

       As I said, we had regular telephone conferences with the disability community in the region to identify problems that they were having and tried to come up with solutions.  One of the significant things that we've done more recently in the last few weeks is to put an architect who specializes in accessibility issue on the ground.  This is a Department of Justice architect that HUD identified. So it was coordinated work that we would not have been able to do by ourselves.  Claudia spent several days with him as he went through and looked at the manufactured housing.

 

       DOJ and HUD were able to alert FEMA that their specs on manufactured housing did not meet accessibility codes.  The architect was able to provide them with revised specs so that they could put them into the pipeline now, and they can inform vendors, "Okay, XYZ Corporation, now build them this way" -- which is how the system works.  We're starting to see accessible housing flow through the pipeline.

 

       One of major steps we have taken, and that we need to do a whole lot more with, is establishing really strong relationships with the Red Cross.  The Red Cross has been very, very receptive to working with us, and wants to work with us in the long term.  But, again, we need to work on that that more.  They run essentially all of the shelters.  They have huge portions of a disaster situation that they take care of, and we need to be responsible for improving that relationship.

 

       President Bush, in his nationally-televised speech in New Orleans, said that we're going to review the 50 or so major urban areas and look at their evacuation planning and make sure that we don't have a repeat of this situation.  That project will take a year to work through all of those.  Secretary Chertoff directed that we get somebody on the teams to make sure that they deal with the disability community in these urban areas.  I think that's a significant hopefully long-term step that will make a lot of difference.

 

       The last slide is just some ideas of where you can get more information about us.  We're trying to collect information in a resource center.  You can basically find it at http://www.dhs.gov/xprepresp/committees/editorial_0591.shtm, or go to our table in the lobby, and we're happy to give you a copy of our reports.

 

       Let me just say that when I have done these events, I typically take a pen and a piece of paper because I am trying to take good notes because there aren't good answers to a lot of what you are going to say.  But we're trying to figure out how to solve problems.  So I will take notes again you will notice.

       >> Audience member:  Dan, could you talk more about your work with the Red Cross?  How is that developing in terms of shelters and in terms of planning?

 

       >> DANIEL SUTHERLAND:  The Red Cross -- the Red Cross just like FEMA does not have an office of disability services, or an office -- a group of people who are specialists in this area.  So they're very open to working with us.  They've invited us over two different times and I've done this presentation or something similar to it to two different groups of executives from Red Cross.  They've also invited us into a conference, and they're trying to get us into the mainstream of everything that's going on post-Katrina.  So they've invited us, and we've sent people to participate in a large conference they just had.

 

       We've given them some proposed guidance.  They issue guidance documents just like the government agency does to shelters about how they're supposed to operate.  We've given them proposed guidance for how to deal with the disability community, people in shelters.  So we have a lot of different areas where we can work together.  As I said, they're very enthusiastic. 

 

       >> Audience member:  Dan, Jim Carr from EPA.  Is there any reason we can't invite the Red Cross represents to the ICC meetings?

 

       >> DANIEL SUTHERLAND:  They'll be there. 

 

       >> Audience member:  Earlier we heard from a number of speakers talking about the importance of telecommunications and providing emergency response.  Back in the old days before there was competition in the marketplace for telecommunications, you could rely on what was then the only company to be sure that there was power provided for telephone service and that sort of thing.  They used to have standard operating procedure to have a week or two of fuel to keep the phones running.  That is not the case anymore, particularly with companies -- cable companies, for example.  They have an entirely different philosophy, and they were built at a very different time.  And so one of the things that will need to be sort of reconsidered relative to telecommunications for anybody, but including people with disabilities, is the kind of plans and programs that are in place for those telecommunications companies that are the channel for providing important information.

 

       >> DANIEL SUTHERLAND:  Judy asked me two questions in an e-mail, so can I answer those? 

       The first question was, "Were emergency evacuations ordered captioned or interpreted?" And as I said, the FCC -- I mean, that is a standard protocol, but the FCC issued public notices to remind the television stations of their obligations in this area.  Now, was there compliance in the area?  I couldn't really tell you.  I would guess that it was spotty in my experience.  I would see occasionally there was an interpreter.  So the compliance is another question, and we would certainly -- I am speaking on behalf of the council -- really be interested in feedback in that area.  The FCC is in sort of a difficult position.  They respond to complaints that are filed with them.  So my understanding is that there have been no complaints filed at this time is that right, Cheryl?  We're not sure.  We're not aware of any complaints that are filed on that issue at this point.  But feedback to FCC or to us on the council would be great.  I think that it would be very useful.

 

       The second -- Judy asked me all of these difficult questions so I have to answer the hard questions here.  Not hard questions, but questions that don't have good answers.

She asked, "Are there or were there strategies for arranging interpreters in shelters?" Well, you saw the one photograph of the way that they dealt with that in one of the stadiums.  Just put up a sign that said, "Deaf." I don't know what that means.

 

       So the answer is are there strategies?  I can give you the political answer, and I can give you the truth, and I presume you answer the truth.  No there were no strategies.  We could try to whitewash it or make it look better, but, no, no strategies.  Shelters were run -- from all that I've learned over the last several weeks -- shelters are not run by an entity.  The Red Cross directs some shelters, and others just show up in churches, community centers, or whatever.  In other words, there is no central body.  No shelters are run by the Red Cross -- shelters are run by Red Cross volunteers.  We have a large issue with shelters and how to improve that but that's one of the issues that we're working with.

 

       The Red Cross would like for it to be better.  We have strategies to propose.  We're working with the Red Cross on them.  But, no, there were no strategies, and the NOD report demonstrated that from their sampling. 

 

       I would be glad to answer questions.  And we do have people from our office who are here and would love to talk to you over the next couple of days as well.  And I really appreciate the chance to talk with you about these issues and learn with you, hopefully.

 

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