WASHINGTON — Almost five years after Hurricane Katrina, the federal government remains woefully unprepared to rescue at-risk groups of people in the path of a catastrophe, a congressional panel charged on Tuesday.
A House Homeland Security subcommittee challenged the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Office of Disability Integration and Coordination to explain how its budget of $150,000 and its staff of four people could possibly execute an effective rescue plan for the aged, disabled and institutionalized.
The lawmakers' concerns were heightened by the testimony of Marcie Roth, the director of the disability office, who asserted that people with "special needs" comprise "almost 50 percent of the population."
"My church spends more than $150,000, and we don't have 300 million citizens, which is what the nation has," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. said.
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Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif., the panel's chairman, said the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 improved emergency preparedness by directing FEMA to appoint a Disability Coordinator, but she added that the disability office's meager funding has restricted its ability to perform well.
"We cannot allow these reforms to be considered window dressing," Richardson said. "Rather, they must be real and able to ensure that people with disabilities have an empowered advocate with the right tools."
Richardson contrasted the disability office with FEMA's Technological Hazards Division, which uses a registry to monitor vulnerable citizens. Without such a system, Richardson contended, the federal government risks leaving the disabled in harm's way.
"We have a responsibility to provide more direction, to say that there's got to be some way to have a record of who is out there and who needs assistance," Richardson said. A disaster "is not a matter of if; it's a matter of when."
Roth countered that simply registering disadvantaged people would be ineffective, and instead emphasized the need for such citizens to assume more personal responsibility. A registry would create "a false sense that the government knows (at-risk people) are there and the government will take care of them," she said.
Roth argued that a more integrated approach is needed to ensure that everyone participates in community-wide preparedness and that "misleading stereotypes do not dilute the effectiveness of emergency plans."
A holistic approach to emergency preparedness notwithstanding, the subcommittee refused to believe that a badly underfunded organization such as FEMA's disability office could operate with any degree of success during a disaster.
"Lions pick out the oldest, the wounded, or the youngest," Cleaver said. "Disasters do the same thing. They pick out the oldest, the wounded, the youngest — that's who they attack. I think that's true in wildlife; it's true in disasters. And it's also true of departments . . . with a staff of one, we're setting ourselves up for a problem."
FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said that the disability office budget isn't all that FEMA brings to bear in helping disabled people in emergencies. The whole agency and its full budget serves the disabled and others in emergencies, she said. The disability office "advises the agency on these efforts, but our entire agency is focused on serving children and adults with disabilities and devotes many other resources and tools toward that effort," Racusen said.
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