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"FEMA and Civil Rights"

January/February 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

Heading into temple for my annual Rosh Hashanah visit, I saw an announcement of an upcoming talk by fellow congregant Alan Clive (, identified as the recently retired ďformer civil rights director for FEMA.Ē Intrigued by the timing and the title, I attended, after which I arranged to interview Mr. Clive. Herewith the results -CH

Chester Hartman: I was surprised to hear that there is an Office of Equal Rights in FEMA. Can you tell me something about its history and its authority?

Alan Clive: When I began working for FEMA in 1983 there was an independent Equal Opportunity Office that reported to the director of FEMA. About 3 years later it was amalgamated into the personnel department as a division, and it remained that way until 1993 when it was separated out again, and at that point the then-director decided to acknowledge the fact that we had both responsibility for EEO and for the civil rights of beneficiaries and that we would be known as the Office of Equal Rights. That office had authority over all of the civil rights statutes right from the beginning. But frankly it really didnít have much in the way of staffing. I was hired in 1983 essentially to start the civil rights program, along with pursuit of a particular interest of mine, the disaster-related needs of disabled and elderly people. So the office as it existed at the time I retired in August of 2005 handled both external civil rights issues and internal complaints.

CH: So you were the first occupant of this position?

AC: Yes. EEO has always had far greater prominence in our office because the EEO complaints are the ones that require time and money, and weíve gotten only a few civil rights complaints. By which I mean a few that went formal requiring investigation, but most of them we have tried to resolve informally. In reality the number of informal civil rights complaints we get every year are in the hundreds and if we had to investigate all of them, weíd be out of money, out of staff, couldnít have been done. Because of some retrograde Supreme Court decisions into 1980s, it wasnít until the Civil Rights Restoration Act was passed in 1988 that we were even able to do anything. Most emergency management agencies in the United States are a part of another governmental entity, so until the Restoration Act was passed it was impossible for us to respond to a complaint against, say, the emergency management agency unless it could be demonstrated that FEMA had given money, say to the police department of a particular city under which that agency was part. So basically our hands were tied; there wasnít a heck of a lot we could do in the way of enforcement.

The main issue that we had a flap over during the current Administration began with the Clinton Administration and the Presidentís Executive Order of August 2000 on limited English proficiency: We had to meet the very tight deadlines, which frankly were dictated by the election, to have this regulation about limited English proficiency, based on the Executive Order, requiring recipients to have programs and procedures to help people who didnít speak English very well. We were able to meet the deadline for getting things into the Federal Register, but it didnít turn out to make a difference because the Bush Administration came in and they wanted to do it all over; and there were some conservative Congressmen calling for rescinding that Executive Order, and one of the things we had to do was to fill out a very complex survey every year required by OMB about the cost versus benefits of providing such services. During that time we merged with Homeland Security. When we merged, all of a sudden again everything we had done was thrown up in the air, because now instead of there being a FEMA reg, there was going to be a Homeland Security reg on limited English proficiency. When I left [in April 2005], I donít believe that the issue had been resolved; so by various stratagems, they certainly did manage to delay and put a spoke in the wheel of civil rights regulations.

CH: You mentioned in your temple talk that there is also a Community Relations office within FEMA, distinct from Equal Rights.

AC: What Community Relations does is to send people out into the community for two purposes. One is to tell people about the FEMA programs, and they do that several ways, for instance by leaving fliers at places; in the black community, it might be barber shops, beauty salons. The fliers describe the benefits available, and Iíve been with Community Relations teams, going door to door, knocking on peopleís doors to see if they know about the program. Secondly, Community Relations tries to obtain intelligence about problems that might be arising that would get in the way of service delivery, and weíve always worked very closely with them. You asked if I had a staff. Actually, I did have more than the two people I talked about, because one of my other functions there was to manage a group of people. FEMA couldnít handle disasters with the full-time employees we have. When disasters occur, many of those people are deployed to the disaster area, which of course means that things come to a dead stop in a lot of our regional offices. So we maintain a group that has fluctuated up and down from as few as 1,700 to as high as 8,000. And now I think there are about 3,000 Disaster Assistance Employees.

CH: Theyíre FEMA employees?

AC: They are. We refer to them as reservists, but theyíre not like the military reservists.

CH: Theyíre not obligated to go the disaster area?

AC: Thatís right, although thatís something that was being worked on when I left because we had real problems getting some people to work when we needed them, and there was a move toward becoming more punitive in terms of throwing people off the rolls. Each office in the agency has a cadre of DAEís. We had a group of people who were referred to as equal rights officers. There were about 40 of them at the time I left. These folks would go to our field offices, depending on the size of the disaster there. I believe at this point thereís something like 12 at the Baton Rouge Field Office and there were 15 in Florida last year at the beginning of the four hurricanes, and they handle a wide variety of things. They handle civil rights, and they also do training.

CH: Did the people who did equal rights work have some appropriate background?

AC: Yes, generally speaking some of them were directly from the EEOC, they were EEOC retirees. Most of our DAE workforce is skewed toward retirees and also toward younger people. Itís very difficult to find people with genuine civil rights backgrounds.

CH: Is the agency itself generally pretty multi-racial in terms of staffing?

AC: Weíve done a lot of work, and most of our successes have been opening up the higher grades to women and to minorities. Unfortunately, weíve not made the kind of progress the director has wanted in terms of getting minorities into the agency and also into the reserve force. Our own cadre, Iím happy to say, is very diverse; itís a majority minority organization, and it wouldnít be right any other way, but unfortunately minorities are still not represented the way that we would like to see them.

CH: In terms of relations with other agencies like Justice and EPA that have their own civil rights elementsóis there much integration with what FEMA does?

AC: There was some effort by Justice to bring us together in informal groupings; there was much more of it in terms of the implementation of this limited English proficiency matter. We did have pretty close relations with Justice on a few cases, EPA really not at all. And of course the other major actor since 2003 has been the person who has the title of Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at Homeland Security, who came to Homeland Security from Department of Education, and he was also a litigator at Justice in the disability rights section.

CH: A related question: Is there any contact you folks have had in a more sustained way with civil rights groups and with advocacy groups?

AC: Not in a sustained way, but it depends on the magnitude of the disaster and the type of issue. For example, we have never had any sustained contact with any of the groups representing women in the fire service, although occasionally we have gotten cases from women who have said that they were being discriminated against in terms of their fire department allowing them to attend the National Fire Academy, which is a part of FEMA; itís very prestigious for the fire service, itís the equivalent of the FBI Academy, and so the ability to get in there really means quite a lot. On the other hand, after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the NAACP came to us, and they had a list of people who they said had been discriminated against in receipt of assistance. Now after Katrina we have had a lot of contact. The one that I am most familiar with because Iíve been dealing with it on a volunteer basis since I retired is the disability groups. As I said, thatís something that I made one of my specialties and there was quite a lot of interest after the attacks on September 11th. After Katrina there was an even greater concern about how disabled people would be treated in recovery, so there has been a sustained initiative by disability groups, and the current director of Equal Rights has been dealing with the NAACP and the other groups that have been working with housing issues.

CH: Whatís your general sense of the charge about structural racism as it manifested itself in the response to Katrina? Whether itís services, whether itís the ability of people with cars to get out, whether itís differential damage, differential ability to come back, the 9th Ward issue, the changing the demographics of New Orleans.

AC: I think you have to remember that emergency management does not start with FEMA. Thatís not an effort to duck responsibility; itís simply under the federal system the way things are set up.

CH: You mean it starts with the state?

AC: It starts actually with the town, the city, the county; they are the people who draw up the plans. Those plans are supposed to be done in conjunction with the state emergency preparedness/emergency management office, and what FEMA does is provide the training. It did in the past, and I know a lot of our programs have moved over to Homeland Security, so probably a lot of the stuff Iím talking about we donít even do any more, but in the past we provided funding for the staffing of emergency management agencies; thatís probably now a function of Homeland Security. Letís say in this case the City of New Orleans has an emergency management plan and that calls for the evacuation of people. Itís up to New Orleans to figure out how things are to be done and to do it in conjunction with the State of Louisiana. But one of the things that Iíve read in the papers is that when the emergency management people in New Orleans said weíre going to use the Superdome, FEMA people were rolling their eyes because they knew the Superdome was not an appropriate place to put people; they tried it in 1998 during Hurricane Georges, and it hadnít worked out, and still they intended to go on with it. Iím very happy to say that some of the FEMA regions all on their own have worked with some of the ministerial alliances on a statewide basis to try to get the message across that minorities need to register with FEMA for help; even if they donít get any assistance from FEMA, the registration process opens up the doors of the Red Cross or other agencies.

CH: Do some African Americans not register with FEMA for the same reasons they donít register to vote Ė they have little faith in the system?

AC: A lot of minority folks donít want to have anything to do with the government; theyíre suspicious of it. I recall very clearly that in the two days after Hurricane Floyd, a black minister was saying the white man is up on his feet before the black man has even had a chance, and thereís the automatic suspicion about adverse outcomes that really creates problems. Hurricane Katrina does not to me add up to structural racism; what it does add up to is, I think, a combination of a lack of leadership on all three levels of government, combined with a disaster that really was outside what weíre used to in this country. We like to say in FEMA that we havenít seen the big one yet, and you just fill in whatever it is we havenít had. We havenít had that one and we havenít had the equivalent of the great hurricane of 1900 in Galveston. I think Katrina was probably pretty close to the big one in that category. I think that emergency management is an oxymoron when you get into those areas.

CH: Beyond evacuation and services issues, does FEMA at all get involved in the whole rebuilding process in terms of racial issuesóthis notion that weíre not going to rebuild New Orleans to what it was, itís going to be a different demography.

AC: First of all, we only provide funding for public buildings and the issue of debris removal. Regrettably, a good part of the Lower 9th is debris which has to be removed, and we have the authority to assign missions to other agencies, and so what you get is a system where FEMA is removed first of all by handing this over to the Army Corps of Engineers, which then hands it over to private contractors. So one of the issues that persistently comes up is the lack of minority representation in terms of debris removal, but FEMA is somewhat shielded from that because itís usually mission-assigned to another federal agency. We can try to influence the Corps but we canít tell the Corps what to do other than weíre telling you to go get this debris removed and basically the Corps does it the way theyíre going to do it. When we give money to replace or repair, for example, public buildings, bridges, roads and like, again, that moneyís given to states and they then give it to the local government. Now, for example, we do say that depending on the degree of destruction, if a building or a structure is rebuilt, itís got to be rebuilt appropriately for people with disabilities. But in terms of the private housing market and to what extent the city of New Orleans is going to rebuild and how itís going to rebuild, thatís not an issue that we would ever get involved in.

CH: Did you feel that media coverage was in anyway racially biased, and did that have an impact?

AC: No. Actually, I felt this was the mediaís discovery that there was actually a problem out there. Not that much attention has been paid, as much as should have been paid, to the Gulf Coast, where the level of destruction on a proportional basis was probably worse than in New Orleans. In some cases, entire communities just wiped off the map, something akin to what happened when Rita came through on the west side of the state later that month. But certainly I think the media has been very sympathetic.

CH: How do civil rights issues in Katrina/Rita compare with FEMAís previous engagements in terms of those responses and issues?

AC: After the hurricanes in Florida, we had this enormous number of civil rights complaints, mostly based on race. Our historic pattern is that about half of our complaints are racially based and about 90 to 95% of them have to do with housing inspection, some problem with the inspection process, such as biased inspections. Another matter is damage and cost estimates that vary wildly. And so here is another place where FEMA has insulated itselfónot wittingly, itís just the way we do business. We could not afford to keep a group of inspectors on the rolls any more than we can afford to have these DAEís permanently on the rolls, so what we do is we have two or three private companies do the work.

CH: Some people have talked about potential violations of the Voting Rights Act if part of this conscious change of population is political in the sense of trying to make sure that Louisiana is Red and stays Red for a while or gets Red. Is that an area that FEMA concerns itself with?

AC: No, we would have absolutely nothing to do with that. Weíre only involved with Title VI because you have to show that the state or the parish or the city was using our money in a racially biased way and that it would be our money and not money from some other agency. Since our money is really not involved with the private housing market, itís very hard to see where we would be an actor.

CH: The Lawyersí Committee has brought a class action against FEMA. Do you foresee any further such litigation?

AC: Well, itís certainly been called for, by Minister Farrakhan and others. There was a class action suit against FEMA after September 11th by public interest groups representing the Asian community because we had a situation there where people were being turned down for assistance because they couldnít provide the kind of information we needed to prove that they lived where they said they livedórent receipts and so on; they lived in a community where there is nothing written down. The outcome was that we had about 7,000 cases, and we changed our regulations to allow other types of conformation. The families of Katrina are dispersed, they are poor, they shy away from the government; theyíre going to have to be organized and I donít know if itís going to be successful. They could sue FEMA for failure to come to the rescue, but they really have to turn to the city and the state as far as the fundamental issue of evacuation. Iím enough of a believer in the federal system that I donít think we would want to have a federal agency that was so all-powerful that it could actually make and implement evacuation plans for every community in the country. We would have to know a little too much about every community in the country to do that before they sue us. There are other people they need to be looking at.

CH: Thank you very much. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.

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