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Disaster Assistance and Your Civil Rights

Hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes do not discriminate; these natural disasters can hurt everyone equally. However, people do discriminate and you can experience it when you are at your most vulnerable: before, after, or during a disaster or an emergency. Discrimination is devastating at any time, but concerns about discrimination, accessibility, and protecting your general civil rights are much more urgent when dealing with a disaster because of the high stakes involved. Fortunately, there are laws available to protect you during these difficult times.

Laws that Protect Disaster Victims' Civil Rights

Civil rights statutes and other state laws may apply, but the federal government has enacted several laws that protect disaster victims' civil rights. These federal protections include the following:

The Stafford Act

The Robert T. Stafford Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988 (Stafford Act) is the main source of law related to a disaster or emergency; the Act establishes the federal authority for most disaster response activities. When the President officially declares a disaster, the declaration triggers the response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to deliver assistance. The states and localities have the actual responsibility for carrying out the disaster recovery, but receive assistance from the federal government.

Discrimination Protection for Disaster Victims

The Stafford Act, applicable to both disaster assistance programs and to private relief organizations, prohibits discrimination on the basis of color, race, nationality (including limited English proficiency), sex, religion, age, disability, or economic status when carrying out federal assistance functions at the site of a major disaster. The federal assistance functions include:

  • Distribution of supplies
  • Processing of applications
  • Other relief and assistance activities

Also, the Act states that no geographic area can be precluded from federal assistance by any type of scale based on income or population.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act has coverage similar to that of the Stafford Act. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance, including health care providers and law enforcement agencies.

Accessibility Protection for Disabled Disaster Victims

Accessibility issues concern all disaster victims, but are especially relevant to individuals with disabilities. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination in all programs receiving funds from the federal government and operated by the federal government. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (PKEMRA) establishes a disability coordinator to ensure that the needs of individuals with disabilities are appropriately addressed.

Limitations on Civil Rights Protection

Although the federal government provides protections for disaster victims' civil rights, there are limitations to the protection. For example, the Stafford Act is limits discrimination to include only intentional discrimination and not disparate impact discrimination. This is a key difference between rights under the Stafford Act and rights under Title VI. The Stafford Act is also silent on voting rights and the participation of displaced persons in recovery planning and management. Displaced persons do not have the right to be provided with housing; any housing assistance is based on the federal government's discretion.

Protect your Civil Rights in a Disaster

Recovering from a disaster or emergency is an exhausting endeavor. It is further aggravated if you were mistreated. Were you denied services because of your race, natural origin, sex, or other protected characteristic? If you were affected by a disaster and you think that your civil rights were violated, then take the first step and protect your rights. Talk to a civil rights attorney today about filing a complaint.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified civil rights attorney
to help you protect your rights.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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