When a natural disaster strikes, staying safe during the event and dealing with the aftermath are stressful at best and can be traumatic and life altering for some. For people with disabilities, the challenges are greatly compounded. Fortunately, they have an advocate. TREAT team member Gerald “Jerry” Weisman has spent his career providing rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology services to help people with disabilities increase their independence in both living and employment situations. For the past four years, Jerry has served as a Reservist in FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, making sure that people with access and functional needs receive assistance before, during and after a natural disaster. In the wake of a powerful hurricane season and devastating wildfires in the west, FEMA has had their hands full. In this Q&A, Jerry relays his experiences being deployed to Houston, Texas to aid Hurricane Harvey victims.
What is the role of FEMA in general and the Disability Integration Cadre in particular?
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, focuses on two roles after a region is declared a disaster area by the government: 1) providing public assistance for infrastructure repairs such as bridges and buildings and 2) providing assistance to individuals, including the national flood insurance program. The Disability Integration Cadre makes sure that FEMA programs are accessible to everyone.
How does the Disability Integration Cadre do this?
We have different roles and activities as time progresses from the date of the disaster. Immediately after a disaster, a Joint Field Office is set up as close as possible to the disaster area without being in harm’s way. For Harvey, the JFO is in Austin, Texas. In addition, Disaster Recovery Centers are set up where the public can go to receive services from FEMA and other organizations such as Red Cross, HUD, SBA and other local and state resources. We make sure that the JFO building – which is huge; 2000 people work there – and the DRCs are accessible to everyone and that there is a toolbox of assistive technologies available for those who need them.
What kinds of assistive technologies do you use?
The staff at the DRCs are there to help people solve a variety of problems. We make sure that there are hearing amplifiers, magnifying glasses and sign language interpreters available. If we can’t have a sign language interpreter live, we have a program on an iPad where we can video chat with an interpreter. We also make these available at the various meetings such as town halls and press conferences.
Do you work at the shelters too?
FEMA doesn’t set up shelters – that’s taken care of by the Red Cross and the state. I help folks in the shelters get the assistive technologies and medications they need, often working with local disability organizations to provide wheelchairs and other assistance items. FEMA representatives work with folks at the shelters to help them get back home or find temporary housing such as hotel rooms, trailers and mobile homes. Generally, by two months post-disaster, most are in longer term situations. In my role as a Disability Integration Advisor, I work with people with accessibility issues to help them find appropriate housing. For severely disabled people, especially if they were independent before, we focus on helping them keep their independence and avoid having to go to a nursing home.
What are some other roles you have?
One of my roles is to support Disaster Survivor Assistance (DSA). DSA go door to door and offer help. DSA assist survivors to register with FEMA or if they already have, we can look up their case and check on the status of their case. In one instance, we found a person who had lost his wheelchair in the flood and assisted him getting it replaced.
We also work with disability organizations to make sure they are involved in future disaster planning. It’s important to have these organizations at the table so that rebuilding efforts take disability into account and that emergency planners include people with disabilities in their evacuation and emergency management plans.
How did you get this job with FEMA?
The FEMA Office of Disability Integration & Coordination was established in 2010 by Marcie Roth, then Senior Advisor for Disability Issues. I applied as a Disability Integration Advisor (DIA) in 2013 when the first group were recruited to the cadre. I had worked on Obama’s first campaign developing disability policies and had written a position paper on assistive technology where I met Marcie.
This sounds like a demanding job, having to be away from home for so long.
FEMA employees are people who truly want to help others and that makes it worthwhile. There are certainly challenges. I have to be able to be in the disaster zone within 48 hours of being called. At the beginning there are a lot of 12-hour days, 7-day weeks and a lot of fast food. I’ve been in Houston since August 30th and will be here until the end of January.
I see a lot of heartbreaking things. I was sent to a flood in Baton Rouge that didn’t get a lot of press. This was an area that had never flooded before; it attracted a lot of people who moved there after Katrina and lost everything for a second time. I helped a woman with stage 4 pancreatic cancer get out of Houston to get treatment in Biloxi which then flooded. I worked with an elderly couple, one of them with a lot of health issues, who had lost everything.
Of course, there are all the requisite problems that arise from working for a government agency, software glitches for example, but when you think of the scope of what they are doing, it works. They learned a lot from Katrina and have good leadership in place. $1.4 billion was given out in the Houston area, money to rebuild the community and get people back in their homes.
Note: For those wishing to volunteer with or donate to disaster relief efforts, FEMA has a website to help you contribute responsibly and safely.
In the field of rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology for more than 41 years, Jerry Weisman’s extensive experience includes delivering rehabilitation engineering services, performing research and teaching in the field. In addition to his role with FEMA, Jerry is the owner and principal of Rehabilitation Technology Services, a rehabilitation engineering consulting firm and the founder and President of Assistive Technology Solutions www.atsolutions.org. At TREAT, Jerry serves as a Senior Engineer. A member of the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) since 1982, Jerry has held numerous leadership positions including President.
Picture Caption: One of the six shelter rooms at Houston’s Brown Convention Center Shelter in August 2017. Photo credit: Jerry Weisman