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Office of Human Services Emergency Preparedness and Response
National Commission on Children and Disasters: 2010 Report to the President and Congress

10. Housing

Recommendation 10.1: Prioritize the needs of families with children, especially families with children who have disabilities or chronic health, mental health, or educational needs, within disaster housing assistance programs.

  • Government agencies and non-governmental organizations should ensure that families with children in disaster housing, especially community sites, have access to needed services and are provided safe and healthy living environments.
  • Congress should authorize DHS/FEMA to reimburse State and local governments for providing wrap-around services to children and families in community sites.
  • DHS/FEMA should develop clear written guidance around emergency transportation planning and reimbursement for State and local governments that addresses the recovery needs of children and families.
  • Government agencies and non-governmental organizations should identify and promote innovative programs to expedite the transition into permanent housing for families with children.

The Federal Government and its State and local partners must address the unique housing and community needs of families with children in planning and throughout the continuum of disaster housing assistance, from emergency sheltering to interim housing to permanent housing.342 Interim and permanent housing options must provide families with children access to stable, affordable, and safe housing in close proximity to schools, child care, and health and social services, which are critical for a family's recovery following a disaster. To minimize harmful disruptions to children's lives, the transition from interim to permanent housing also must be prompt and seamless.

Children may suffer emotional stress from having to move to unfamiliar locations or when they are disconnected from their traditional support networks.343 Following a move that results in a change in schools, children commonly require between four and six months for academic recovery.344 Children displaced following Hurricane Katrina moved an average of three times per child.345 A study of displaced students attending Louisiana Public Schools during the first academic year following the hurricane found that negative achievement effects were correlated with the number of schools attended and were most significant among children who were displaced for the remainder of the academic year.346

The Commission urges State and local governments to prioritize families with children, especially families with children who have disabilities or chronic health, mental health, or educational needs, for disaster housing that meets their housing and community needs. Although the Stafford Act prevents the prioritization of any population for Federal assistance,347 according to the National Disaster Housing Strategy348 (the "Strategy"), State and local governments, through State-led housing task forces or other mechanisms, "will determine the priorities for placement of individuals and households."349 However, the Strategy only suggests that State and local governments consider medical needs, accessibility requirements, and court restrictions when determining "which populations have precedence to ensure that everyone is housed to best suit their individual needs."350

The Commission continues to recommend that individuals with subject-matter expertise related to children and programs to address children's needs be included on the National Disaster Housing Task Force (NDHTF),351 State-led housing task forces, and all related working groups. Representation on State-led housing task forces is especially critical since, as mentioned above, State-led task forces may identify populations for priority occupancy.352

In the Interim Report, the Commission recommended that the NDHTF integrate the needs of families with children throughout the Strategy's Implementation Plan and other related efforts. The Implementation Plan was released in March 2010 and includes an objective and corresponding tasks related to the needs of children, which were assigned to the NDHTF and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as lead and coordinating entities.353 The Implementation Plan also indicates that the identification of wrap-around services354 necessary to meet the needs of children and families will be included in the National Disaster Housing Concept of Operations and Disaster Housing Practitioner's Guide355 currently being developed by the NDHTF.356 The Commission recommends that both documents clearly state that access, proximity, and transportation to educational institutions, child care, health and mental health care, child welfare, safe recreational sites, and essential social services must be primary considerations during the process of locating suitable housing options for families with children or designing a community site.

The Commission remains concerned about the delivery of wrap-around services for children and families placed in community sites. Following a large-scale disaster, available resources for interim housing may be insufficient to meet demand, prompting the development of community sites as an "option of last resort."357 After Hurricane Katrina, children experienced challenging living conditions due to overcrowded neighborhoods, unsafe communities, and isolation from other housing sites.358 Although some social services, including early childhood education and after-school programs, employment services, and transit for persons with disabilities, were offered on-site in the largest community site, Renaissance Village,359 it was likely the only site where this occurred.360 To address problems with the conditions in community sites, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act (PKEMRA) required the development of a plan for the operation of community sites, including access to public services, site management, security, and site density.361

In an Annex to the Strategy entitled "Disaster Housing Community Site Operations," the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides "a framework for Federal, State, territory, tribal, and local governments to plan every step of the community site operations process."362 FEMA acknowledges that "it is essential that access to educational institutions, places of employment, and essential social services is considered during the process of planning and designing a community site."363 However, FEMA also acknowledges that locating a community near established wrap-around services and infrastructure may not be feasible. FEMA notes that, in those cases, additional services and infrastructure, such as child care and playgrounds, are often requested, but maintains that the Agency lacks the authority under the Stafford Act to provide these and other wrap-around services to children and families in community sites.364

The Commission urges State and local governments to ensure that access to wrap-around services is provided to community site residents. In addition, the Commission recommends that Congress authorize FEMA to reimburse State and local governments for reasonable expenses related to ensuring access to these services, whether in the form of transportation to nearby services or temporary augmentations to the community sites that permit the services to be delivered on-site.

Furthermore, the Commission echoes the Government Accountability Office (GAO) 2008 recommendation that FEMA develop clear written guidance around emergency transportation planning and reimbursement for State and local governments.365 Following Hurricane Katrina, the GAO identified only one Federal program that exclusively served community site residents, and only two community sites received services through the program.366 Routes were limited to FEMA-defined "essential services"—specifically banks, grocery stores, and pharmacies—while transport to other human and medical services was not provided. FEMA officials indicated to the Commission that although no specific written policy addressing reimbursement for emergency transportation costs exists, FEMA may cover certain additional transportation expenses under the public assistance program. States and local jurisdictions must have a clearer indication from FEMA of the type and scope of transportation assistance eligible for reimbursement following a disaster.

Finally, the Commission recommends that the NDHTF continue to identify and promote innovative disaster housing solutions that accelerate the transition to permanent housing for families with children. One example of an innovative solution is FEMA's Alternative Housing Pilot Program (AHPP), which FEMA identifies as a key component of the National Disaster Housing Strategy.367 The most recognized initiatives under AHPP are the cottage programs, known as Mississippi Cottages in Mississippi368 and Katrina Cottages in Louisiana.369 The purpose of the programs is to develop and produce safer and more comfortable temporary housing units with the option of allowing units to be converted from temporary to permanent.370,371 The cottages are designed to be larger and more durable than FEMA trailers and to provide a more comfortable living space.372,373 In addition, they can be easily incorporated as a permanent part of a community, as has recently occurred in Ocean Springs, MS.374

In a statement to the House Homeland Security Committee in a July 2009 public hearing, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate noted that Katrina-type cottages could significantly accelerate a small community's recovery following a disaster.375 He encouraged communities to develop strategies that integrate alternative housing solutions, such as the Katrina-type cottages, into their communities, as opposed to considering cottages an alternative to temporary housing.376

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