DHRC Calls on FEMA to Address Language Accessibility Problems during Maui Wildfire Recovery Efforts

The NLIHC-led Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) sent a letter to FEMA on October 23 to express concern about the lack of access to translation services for households affected by the 2023 Maui wildfires. Emphasizing the past failures of FEMA to provide adequate language support, the letter requests immediate action to ensure language access for disaster survivors.

Following the wildfires that broke out in Hawaii in August and triggered a federal emergency declaration, FEMA stepped in to provide assistance and information to disaster survivors, including Disaster Case Management. Despite backlash after past disasters, the lack of effective language translation services undermined the benefits of these programs for individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Specifically, language translation and interpretation services have not been adequately offered for speakers of Chuukese, Marshallese, Pohnpeian, Spanish, Tagalog, Ilocano, and Tongan.

The Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition (DHRC) is composed of over 900 national, state, and local organizations, many of which are working to actively assist disaster survivors, and strives to ensure that federal disaster recovery efforts reach those most impacted and most marginalized by disasters, including households with low-incomes and those experiencing homelessness. The letter sent by the DHRC highlighted FEMA’s obligation to act in accordance with federal civil rights law, specifically Title VI of the “Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Section 504 of the “Rehabilitation Act of 1973,” and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which require the agency to provide equal access to services and prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin when conducting assistance. The letter also cited prior examples of FEMA’s substandard translation offerings that persist despite FEMA’s recently introduced Language Access Policy.

Specifically, the letter requests that:

  • Every disaster recovery center (DRC) activated for Maui wildfire response and recovery efforts have translators of Chuukese, Marshallese, Pohnpeian, Spanish, Tagalog, Ilocano, and Tongan immediately available at all times the center is open.
  • Information regarding the disaster application and appeals process – including material regarding the Transitional Shelter Assistance program –be provided in the language preferred by the applicant.
  • Where an applicant has indicated that they require a translator for a specific language, a FEMA home inspection be conducted with a translator of that language present.
  • The FEMA call center be immediately staffed with enough interpreters to ensure that callers requiring translation have similar wait times to others.
  • DRCs and FEMA personnel have the ability to quickly meet the needs of individuals with disabilities through the provision of interpretation services and accessible materials.

Read the letter at: https://bit.ly/40aTqKB