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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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Recovering from a Major Disaster is a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Lessons Learned from One Texas Family

Author: HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response
Published Date: 2/9/2018 4:50:00 PM
Category: Response & Recovery;

Disasters upend the lives of countless families – they not only destroy homes, businesses, schools, and roads, but they also can throw disaster survivor’s lives into chaos. Local leaders are suddenly confronted with decisions on a scale they’ve never encountered before and families must quickly learn how to support themselves and those who rely on them.

When homes are destroyed and the systems that people depend on every day – from water and sewer to roads and schools – are not functioning, it can be difficult if not impossible for some people to recover. When community and government organizations reach out to help people navigate complex processes, they are playing an important role in protecting health.


The Story of Mary and Her Family

Take for instance Mary* a single mother of four. When Hurricane Harvey hit in late August, her family evacuated to a shelter in Shreveport, Louisiana. She stayed in Shreveport until the family shelter closed a few weeks later. She then roomed with extended family until that was no longer an option.

FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program was available to help Mary recover. Although she applied for assistance before being evacuated, Mary was unaware of the requirement to have her home inspected.

When Mary went back to her home in Texas, she found a notice on her door that said she had been denied housing assistance through FEMA’s program. This assistance would have provided help in repairing her current home and temporary housing assistance.

Unaware of how to explain the extenuating circumstances and appeal the decision, Mary and her four children began living out of the family van. Within a week, the van caught fire due to an electrical shortage. For several days, Mary and her family bounced between shelters and hotels, never staying at one location for more than a night.

Feeding her family also became an issue. Shelters provide food, but when Mary couldn’t find a shelter for her family they also went without food. Although her children qualified for the free breakfast and lunch program at their school, all schools in her community closed, first due to extensive damage, and then for winter break. Unfortunately, the schools that were open were miles and miles away, and gas is expensive when you can’t put food on the table.


HHS Steps In to Help

On January 1, Mary’s plight reached the Immediate Disaster Case Management program. Administered by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Children and Families, the program supports states, tribes, and territories by providing disaster case management services to individuals and families impacted by a disaster. Texas Governor Greg Abbott activated the program when he requested federal assistance through the National Disaster Recovery Framework.

The program’s Incident Management Team immediately began working with Health and Social Services Recovery Support Function (RSF) experts from HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) to help problem resolve Mary’s situation. ASPR’s long-standing relationship with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission proved invaluable in that process. The commission helped expedite the various forms of disaster assistance available through FEMA, the state, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and several non-profit organizations. Within a few days, Mary received temporary HUD housing, help in repairing her existing home, and assistance with other unmet family needs.


Communities Need Information about Recovery before Disaster Strikes

Before storms strike, emergency management and health officials provide life-saving information about taking shelter or preparing homes to withstand the storm. Health and social services agencies, advocates, and faith-based and community organizations need to work with those officials to provide additional information to residents so they’re ready to recover from the storm as well.

For example, all households applying for federal disaster assistance must have their homes inspected for damage. The homeowner, or someone 18 years of age or older who lived in the household prior to the disaster, must be present for the schedule appointment to provide the inspector with proof of ownership/occupancy, insurance documents, and a list of damages, among other items.

That means people need to have copies of those essential documents in a waterproof bag in a safe place they can access after the storm. Those documents could be part of an emergency kit. Residents who leave their homes should tape their contact information to their door.

In Mary’s case, she and her family were in Shreveport and didn’t know to return home for a scheduled FEMA inspection. When Mary didn’t show for the inspection, the request for assistance was denied. Because she did not notify FEMA of how to contact her, she never received notification of the denial.

The U.S. federal government has approved nearly 370,000 Individual Assistance applications submitted by Texas residents, and approved payment of more than $1.5 billion. The government is there for the long term, and wants to help all eligible citizens. At the same time, however, it must implement procedures, such as verifying an applicant’s identity, to prevent fraud and ensure that applicants receive the disaster assistance intended for them.

Balancing the need for responsible government oversight with the needs of the people you serve can be a challenge. Before a disaster occurs, help the communities you serve learn more about the state and federal disaster assistance process. For more information about the forms of federal assistance available, including IHP, the requirements of the home inspection process, how to check your application’s status, and what to do if your application is denied, visit disasterassistance.gov or call 800-621-3362. In most cases, the federal government will also establish Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC) in the local area. A DRC is a readily accessible facility or mobile office where survivors may go for information about recovery programs or other disaster assistance programs, and to ask questions related to their case.

Disaster recovery can be challenging for anyone, but it is especially difficult for people who were economically disadvantaged or faced other challenges before the disaster struck. By working with at-risk members of your community and helping them navigate the disaster recovery process, you can help protect health, promote wellness, and save lives.


*To protect the identity of the family portrayed in this blog, we did not use the mom’s real name.


Comments:

Positive Results -The Human Condition

When we as humans have the capacity to look within and realize that we all need each other to survive in the sometimes hostile world. positive things are always the solution. Thanks everyone in the Recovery Team for doing what you do, it makes a huge difference.
2/14/2018 2:29:07 PM

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