April 24, 2020

Wyden Demands FEMA Address Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Disaster Response

Wyden, Colleagues Highlight FEMA’s History of Racial Disparities in Emergency Response, Warn Against Repeating Mistakes During COVID-19


Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., demanded the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) make transparent its plans to address the existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in disaster response and ensure vulnerable communities hurt disproportionately by COVID-19 receive equitable aid and assistance in Oregon and across the nation.

“Our nation has been gripped by COVID-19 and the impacts have been felt across all of society. As FEMA continues in its role as the coordinating agency of the Whole-of-America response to COVID-19, it is critical that the needs of our most vulnerable communities are understood and addressed,” Wyden and 16 of his colleagues wrote in a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor. “Unfortunately, FEMA’s past response to disasters has frequently been plagued by racial and socioeconomic disparities that could have devastating consequences if replicated during this pandemic.”

They continued, “An equitable response requires an understanding of historic discrimination and a proactive plan to ensure that aid and assistance are delivered equitably. Unfortunately, FEMA has a long history of providing inequitable disaster assistance that can devastate communities of color. The responses to Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria were plagued by FEMA policy approaches that were not properly tailored to address the unique needs and circumstances of impacted communities – in addition to leadership missteps, poor communication, and bureaucratic delays.”

“This history is particularly concerning as it relates to COVID-19, because this public health crisis is far more complex and requires FEMA to coordinate with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Defense (DOD), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and a variety of other federal agencies. While we acknowledge that past failures predominately occurred in the delivery of Individual Assistance and the current federal response to COVID-19 is through the Public Assistance program, the magnitude of this crisis demands that FEMA address the unique needs of communities of color,” the lawmakers concluded.

In addition to Wyden, this letter was signed by Senators Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

A copy of the letter is here.