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House and Senate Committees Move Legislation Reforming Federal Disaster Response – Bills Include Major Focus on More Effective Housing Response and Needs of Evacuees With Disabilities

August 1, 2006

This past week, both the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Financial Services Committee reported major legislation reforming the federal Stafford Act (the principal federal law governing disaster response) addressing significant deficiencies in both natural disaster planning and emergency housing response that were experienced by evacuees with serious mental illness across the Gulf Coast in 2005. 

Details on the separate Senate and House bills.

Senate Bill Overhauls Disaster Planning and Housing

The Senate bill, known as the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (S 3721), was developed by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT).  It would rename and reorganize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the U.S. Emergency Management Authority (USEMA) and overhaul federal disaster response and planning, with particular attention to the needs of vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities (including evacuees with serious mental illness).

NAMI is strongly supportive of S 3721, particularly changes in law that will overhaul and expand affordable housing options available for individuals forced to evacuate their homes and communities as a result of natural disasters.  Many of the changes included in S 3721 came about as a result of problems experienced last fall by evacuees with serious mental illness along the Gulf Coast – some which continue to this day.  Proposed changes in the bill also follow recommendations from a White House report assessing “lessons learned” from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Among the key provisions in S 3721 are:

Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Case Management Services – S 3721 specifically authorizes the new USEMA to direct funds to evacuees for mental health, substance abuse and case management services.  This would also include transportation services for evacuees to return to their home communities.

Accessibility in Emergency Shelters – The bill would require USEMA to develop standards for accommodating people with disabilities in emergency evacuation shelters and recovery centers.  This was a particular issue for evacuees with mental illness who were turned away from or excluded from emergency shelters along the Gulf Coast in 2005.  This provision also amends the Stafford Act to allow for reasonable accommodations for a disability in temporary and permanent housing developed the aftermath of a natural disaster.  S 3721 would also establish a new Disability Coordinator at USEMA who would be responsible for disaster planning, interagency coordination, best practice development and dissemination, training for first responders and coordination for accessible transportation.    

Disaster Housing Strategy – The bill amends the Stafford Act to require the new USEMA to partner with numerous federal agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to develop a Disaster Housing Strategy, covering both emergency and long-term recovery needs.  This strategy would outline funding issues and agency responsibilities.  It would require participating agencies to site “clusters of housing” near employment and public services.  This proposed strategy is viewed as critical to overcoming restrictions under the Stafford Act that have limited the ability of FEMA to provide any housing assistance to evacuees beyond travel trailers and time-limited rental assistance. 

Housing Assistance for Individual Evacuees and Households – The bill would require USEMA to consider good cause reasons why a pre-disaster household may no longer be intact, allowing for more than one member of the household (post-disaster) to receive assistance.  This would correct many of the problems Katrina evacuees faced due to FEMA’s “shared household” rule.  This restriction on eligibility for FEMA housing assistance resulted in evacuees with mental illness who lived with relatives, unrelated roommates or were in congregate housing from getting rental assistance if they evacuated to a different community.  The bill requires the President to issue shared household regulations within 6 months.

The bill also amends current law to allow disaster victims to use their cash assistance for security deposits and utility bills – something FEMA housing assistance was not able to do last year.  The further specifies that rental assistance would be linked to HUD’s fair market rent (FMR) rules and would allow households to receive up to 120% of local FMR – allowing for higher levels of rental assistance.  This is important in cases where rents to a community in which evacuees have relocated suddenly escalate as a result of the influx of evacuees.  

Disaster Housing Assistance – S 3721 would require that a household give its consent before being provided with direct assistance such as a travel trailer.  If an individual or household rejects this assistance, they would still be eligible for other housing assistance.  More importantly, the bill opens up existing restrictions that have barred FEMA for providing semi-permanent or permanent housing to displaced households – including “Katrina cottages” and other modular housing.  Further, the bill would require that no less than 5% of direct assistance units be accessible for individuals with mobility impairments, and no less than 2% for individuals with hearing or mobility impairments.

An additional detail on the housing provisions in S 3721 is available at:

House Committee Acts on Disaster Housing Bill

Last week, the House Financial Services Committee cleared legislation shifting the responsibility for disaster housing from FEMA to HUD.  The Natural Disaster Housing Response Act of 2006 (HR 5393) is sponsored by Representative Richard Baker (R-LA) and contains numerous responses to problems associated with FEMA’s emergency housing response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005.  NAMI strongly supports HR 5393. 

Like S 3721, HR 5393 amends the federal Stafford to:

  • Authorize FEMA to pay security deposits, utility bills and minor repairs to rental units,
    Allow a disaster victim to reject a travel trailer without losing access to other forms of housing assistance,
  • Require FEMA to notify a disaster victim before a travel trailer is placed on their property,
  • Limit the concentration of travel trailers to avoid creation of FEMA trailer parks, and
  • Authorize use of “Katrina cottages” and other forms of modular housing.

Both the House and Senate bills are expected to move forward after the August recess.

National Council on Disability Report Finds Major Faults With Emergency Response for Hurricane Evacuees With Serious Mental Illness