Testimony of IRC President George Rupp on Hurricane Katrina Response
Testimony of George Rupp
President, International Rescue Committee
Homeland Security and
Governmental Affairs Committee
September 28, 2005
Submitted for the Record
Recently, the Parker family of devastated Orleans Parish found refuge in Atlanta with help from the International Rescue Committee. Upon arrival in their new city, they were met by a woman named Elhamijah Kadic, who brought them to a furnished apartment, helped their children enroll in school, informed them about available social services and put the couple in touch with a job specialist. What makes this story remarkable is that Elhamijah Kadic, now a U.S. citizen, was once herself a newcomer to Atlanta, in search of safety, home and a new start. As a refugee from Bosnia, she escaped ethnic cleansing and knows all too well what it is like to suffer the kind of loss and displacement now being experienced by families like the Parkers. For the past six years, she's worked for the IRC helping other refugees from war-torn countries resettle and integrate, and never would have imagined that one day she would be coming to the aid of America's displaced.
While the IRC typically focuses on humanitarian aid for victims of war and persecution, for the first time we are responding to a natural disaster in America. At the request of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, we dispatched an Emergency Response Team to Louisiana to provide support to local organizations in the areas of public health, emergency education, and mental health counseling for children and adults.
In addition, the IRC's nationwide network of 22 resettlement offices is preparing to offer the same kind of relocation assistance to Hurricane Katrina evacuees as we normally provide to refugees from war-torn countries: linking uprooted people to available housing and social services; providing such basic necessities as food, furnishings, and clothing; and helping with counseling, community orientation, job placement, and school enrollment. In addition to Atlanta, IRC resettlement offices in cities including Dallas, Miami and San Diego are already helping evacuees.
Federal government agencies could learn from relief efforts overseas and refugee resettlement programs in the US and apply these lessons to the response to Hurricane Katrina. Based on IRC's involvement to date helping evacuees in Baton Rouge and other affected American cities, and drawing on our lessons learned from our programs for refugees, I would like to make several recommendations regarding coordination, support and protection of children, shelter, and community integration. I would also urge Committee members to engage with the Administration on the need for a federally sponsored program to help relocate evacuees.
Discussions with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation were initiated on Wednesday, August 30. The IRC's seven member emergency team arrived in Baton Rouge and met with the leadership of the Foundation by the weekend after the hurricane September 3rd and 4th. Team members included crisis coordinators and specialists in health, water, sanitation, emergency education and child trauma and refugee resettlement. After an initial assessment, the team's focus narrowed to provide support to local organizations in the areas of public health, emergency education and counseling for children and adults.
Need for Coordination
One member of the team has been particularly focused on issues of information sharing and coordination. The disaster relief plans of both FEMA and the State of Louisiana lack sufficient mechanisms to promote the efficient collection and dissemination of information at the nongovernmental and community based level. It has become apparent that coordination problems also exist at the federal/state level. Without a centralized information collection and dissemination platform, relief workers are hindered by duplication, gaps in services, and lost capacity. Nongovernmental and community groups responding to the disaster are without access to the critical data that has been collected. As a result, agencies lack the data necessary to make the most efficient decisions. In addition, much time and energy is lost in the search for answers to simple questions.
Over decades, international aid agencies, the United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, the U.S. Government's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the U.S. military have developed best practices for coordination and information sharing during crises in order to effectively assist large displacements of people. It is alarming that a recognized and comprehensive model for the critical elements of coordination and information sharing is not prescribed in state and federal plans. We urge you to help bring this capacity to bear in the current and future disasters.
Supporting and Protecting Children
As families struggle to find missing relatives, adequate shelter and a sense of stability, it is imperative that a support system for children and youth is created and maintained. With the hurricane coming at the beginning of the academic year, the education system is struggling to meet the needs of both local and displaced students. The IRC conducted a two-week assessment of shelters in and around Baton Rouge. Information gathered through this assessment indicates that many displaced children have not yet registered for school for a number of reasons. These reasons include: distress at being separated from family, expectation of returning home as soon as possible, an unwillingness on the parents' part to register their children because they expect to move out of the shelter soon, and resistance from overburdened school districts. Many of the displaced and local students were classified by the state as at risk prior to the hurricane and there is an opportunity amid this crisis to ensure that these children do not fall through the cracks and lose out again. In addition to the more obvious issues regarding formal education, serious attention needs to be given to the emotional wellbeing of children and youth as they cope with these traumatic events and continued instability during relocation/resettlement. The assessment found that the vast majority of shelters did not have structured activities for children where they can express themselves through play and receive counseling and academic enrichment. These types of activities are crucial to provide in the immediate aftermath of traumatic events in order to help children cope and eventually flourish in their new environment.
Children who are separated from their family members are also at greater risk of being exploited or abused. The assessment showed that there is no coordinated system in place to ensure that these children are properly registered, tracked, and helped to reunite with their family members. A key part of a coordinated system is the verification process, which ensures that children are indeed reunited with their family members and not child predators posing as family members.
The IRC's two-week assessment in Baton Rouge discovered that hundreds of mostly unregistered people were housed in seventeen spontaneous shelters and surrounding neighborhoods. This hidden population of displaced people is living in churches, motels, and private homes. Conditions in these shelters in many instances fall below the minimum standards agreed to by humanitarian experts for international crises (the SPHERE standards). While food and clean water were adequate, many of these facilities lacked appropriate infrastructure such as showers and toilet facilities necessary to sustain the numbers of evacuees they were hosting. Additionally, a small number of the shelters were poorly run with uncollected garbage and human wastes presenting a significant risk for disease transmission.
Even in the most well-run shelters, conditions are not conducive to long-term habitation. The larger Red Cross shelters are often public buildings (such as the River Center in Baton Rouge) that offer no privacy and where evacuees are subjected to bright, stadium style lighting. While significant efforts are being made to prevent disease transmission, when people are living in such close quarters the risk grows exponentially, as does the risk of security-related problems.
The near-term solution is to offer evacuees transitional housing opportunities as soon as possible. FEMA is in the process of procuring 50,000 trailers/campers for this purpose. How these communities are established and integrated into local communities will be key to their success.
IRC's experiences overseas have taught us that living in temporary housing can be demoralizing and difficult if care is not taken in the design of sites to ensure that they are humane, healthy and safe. Shelter not only provides physical protection from the elements, but also privacy, dignity and peace of mind. Our shelter programs incorporate best practices principles -- such as designing the decision-making process to be transparent and impartial and soliciting input from members of the affected community. Shelter projects should focus on the empowerment of the displaced by encouraging engagement in self-help activities and discouraging dependency. IRC strives for a sense of ownership and "pride in place" as a vital principle in all our shelter interventions from tents in Darfur to concrete houses in Azerbaijan.
There is a great deal of initiative on the part of the federal and state government and community-based organizations to deal with shelter needs. Here, too, there is a need for better coordination and information sharing. There is concern among some that there could be significant social unrest if the needs of those now in shelters are not appropriately met. Also, a second wave of evacuees requiring shelter may result when people run out of funds to stay in hotels and move out of housing arrangements that have become untenable. Better options for getting evacuees out of shelters and into communities need to be developed quickly with input from the evacuees themselves,
Community Integration: The Right Approach
Emergency assistance tends towards paternalism and treats survivors as passive victims, which can lead to resentment and dissatisfaction. Community leaders should be invited to work on the same design committees as engineers and officials, and community participation must occur at all levels of decision-making. They should be involved not only in selection of the types of shelter but also the layout and design of the settlement. Communal spaces for recreation and sports, social gathering, and religious practice must be allowed.
The workforce that rebuilds affected communities will be constituted largely of citizens from those communities who have lost their homes and livelihoods. Non governmental agencies and the affected states are preparing massive vocational training programs with an emphasis on construction. It is critical that this workforce receive just compensation for their labor. IRC is alarmed that President Bush moved quickly to issue an Executive Order waiving the prevailing wage applicable for federal contracts in areas affected by the Hurricane. We are concerned that this Executive Order invites Federal contractors to exploit disaster victims when these workers should be moving to rebuild their lives and retake their place in society.
IRC Work in Other US Cities
In the Atlanta area, the IRC's resettlement team is coordinating with other service providers to interview evacuees to assess and respond to their immediate needs. IRC staff and volunteers, some of them refugees themselves, are also locating temporary housing for some of the displaced.
In Dallas, which is hosting 15,000 evacuees, IRC staff members are helping displaced residents temporarily housed in shelters to apply for eligible services, including food stamps and Medicaid.
The IRC is also coming to the aid of refugees from conflict nations who were resettled in New Orleans and have become uprooted once again. These families, from Bosnia, Vietnam and Cuba, are now under the care of the IRC's San Diego and Atlanta resettlement offices.
All of the IRC's 22 regional resettlement offices, which have helped thousands of refugees rebuild their lives in the United States, are also ready to respond should the Federal Government initiate a large-scale program to provide relocation services to evacuees. Several offices within the Executive Branch have discussed launching a program sponsored by the Federal government to help evacuees by using the existing network of refugee resettlement agencies. A final decision appears close but is pending. We would urge the Committee to raise creation of this new program with the Administration and to push for quick and decisive action on this issue.
I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to provide this testimony for the record and am especially grateful for the Chair's and Ranking Minority Member's interest in these issues. As always, the International Rescue Committee is ready to provide whatever support we can to assist in this crisis.