Lawsuit Causes FEMA to Disgorge Documents on Accessible Temporary Housing
-posted January 2010
In January 2010, after a long delay, FEMA released 700 pages of materials to NCLEJ which NCLEJ had requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in March 2009. FEMA only released the material after NCLEJ, represented by Hogan & Hartson LLP, filed NCLEJ v. FEMA in federal district court for the Southern District of New York in October 2009.
NCLEJ sought the materials to determine whether FEMA has taken steps to prevent problems faced by people with disabilities that had arose after Hurricane Katrina from occurring in future disasters. In 2006 NCLEJ had filed Brou v. FEMA, a federal lawsuit challenging FEMA’s failure to provide accessible temporary housing (trailers) to persons with disabilities displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Louisiana and Mississippi. As part of the settlement in Brou, FEMA created a process for providing accessible trailers to Katrina and Rita evacuees who needed them under which 2,000 people received accessible temporary housing.
Also, after Katrina, some deaf and hard of hearing individuals were unable to communicate with FEMA by telephone because call center staff were not trained on how to answer calls from those using relay services and TTYs to call the agency. NCLEJ and other organizations filed an administrative civil rights complaint on this issue, which is still pending.
NCLEJ’s 2009 FOIA request was for copies of current FEMA trailer accessibility policies and policies on telephone and face-to-face communication with deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Now that NCLEJ has received the materials, it has determined that FEMA did make changes in response to the 2006 lawsuit, including:
• an indication that at some point FEMA should have an inventory of ready-to-be-installed trailers of as many as 2,500 accessible trailers, and
• FEMA’s policy requires staff to screen people seeking assistance to determine whether anyone in the household has a disability and needs an accessible trailer.
While NCLEJ is delighted that FEMA has learned its lesson from Brou that it needs a plan for providing accessible housing to victims of disasters with disabilities, its new policy has a number of weaknesses that we now intend to address.