FEMA in dire need of technology upgrade to deal with Harvey and future disasters
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A week after Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters peaked across much of Houston, effort is shifting from disaster response to recovery. The numbers are daunting. Almost a third of Harris County, at the center of a municipal region larger than Massachusetts, flooded. Some 42,000 people stayed in shelters Thursday night of last week, probably the peak. More than 100,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. The number of cars written off due to flooding may rise as high as half a million.

After seeing the FEMA application process up close at the George R. Brown Convention Center, I have some suggestions for how FEMA may want to improve its disasterassistance.gov website. For reasonably computer-literate people, disasterassistance.gov is adequate, but for those without basic computer literacy, it can be a tangle of confusion.

Right now, one problem stands above all else, getting people out of shelters and into temporary accommodations. The largest shared problem at any of the shelters shares is where evacuees move next. For those without means, FEMA is the answer, as it is footing the bill. Once FEMA funding is assured for the requestor, they are put in a cab and sent someplace, usually a hotel or motel. Life gets better. The transport desk at the GRB is a happy place.

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Soon after an evacuee was whisked off a Blackhawk or bus at a shelter with FEMA staff, they in-processed with FEMA, trading their last address for a case number and disaster code. Then they wait.

 

To check the status of their case, an evacuee then needs to enter their case number into the disasterassistance.gov website. There they must make an account if they don’t already have one. If they do have a previous account, then they need to remember their login and password, which may be tied to an email not used in years. Logging in also requires a date of birth and Social Security Number. Next, there are several questions most people might find hard to answer designed to determine identity. After supplying the necessary data, the user creates their own username and password. After this, the evacuee needs to provide an email address so that they may receive a temporary PIN number that they must replace with a permanent PIN number that they make up. Then they can enter their user ID, password, and PIN to log into disasterassistance.gov and see if their case has been approved.

The process doesn’t sound so hard, right? For those of us who order our salsa and toilet paper from Amazon Prime, it’s pretty easy. For the marginally computer literate user it can be dauntingly complicated. First off, there is no handy printout of even basic information from FEMA. Applicants for assistance scribble down FEMA information on random scraps of paper. Again and again, I told evacuees to take pictures of login information on cell phones. (Kudos by the way to Sprint and Verizon, who were issuing replacement phones to customers at the convention center.) Nobody prints anything for evacuees. I got a Houston Public Library HP printer up and running and received much praise for it. Because there is no printing, lots of people forget user ID, password and PIN (as well as prior email address, which is a pain to change if you’ve signed in during previous disasters). It’s just hideously backward government IT at its near worst. People need help getting through password resets and PIN issues.

How can things be improved? At the very least, disasterassistance.gov needs to be more easily accessed from mobile phones. On my iPhone it defaults to Spanish, no idea why. An app would probably be better, and one which offers a simple lookup for pending case status. Adding update messaging by text message would also help. Many evacuees don’t use email or don’t check it. They’re not alone. My undergraduate students generally avoid email like the plague for personal use.

In addition, improving the lookup function to below the state level for the FEMA Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program would be useful. The database query for it spits out hotel information for the whole state, listed alphabetically. Some 350 miles away, Abilene was at the top of the list. One software developer here in Houston has already created a text message query system that spits out FEMA hotel program by zip code. That feature should make the next round of upgrades for disasterassistance.gov.

Furthermore, evacuees and the public should have transparency on the data side. We need to know how quickly FEMA staffers are clearing pending cases, getting evacuees into temporary accommodations, and emptying out what will hopefully be short-term shelters. And also, it would be good to know how effective the Airbnb no-cost, limited-term program listed on DisasterAssistance.gov has been.

Finally, there is the plea of Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner to consider. “We need housing assistance. We need an army of FEMA agents on the ground to be assisting people, not just in shelters, but (also) people who are in their homes, so we can get them financial assistance they need (so) they can start transitioning.”

But the process of releasing financial assistance to homeowners can be streamlined, through IT or temporary staffing, and it would be greatly welcomed. We don’t need any administrative impediments slowing what will already be a difficult process for so many people.

Chris Bronk, PhD is an assistant professor at the University of Houston and was previously a Foreign Service Officer and senior advisor to the U.S. Department of State.


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