DHRC’s Puerto Rico Working Group Sends Letter to FEMA Urging Improvements to Translation and Interpretation Services and Extension of Deadline for Assistance Applications

NLIHC, the Fair Share Housing Center, and Puerto Rican advocates including Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia, and the Hispanic Federation sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell calling for FEMA to reopen the assistance application period for Hurricane Fiona and remedy substantial issues with translation services for both disaster survivors with Low English Proficiency and disaster survivors with disabilities.

Impediments related to translation issues – including confusingly translated factsheets and wait times of more than five hours for Spanish language translation services on the FEMA application hotline – have stymied the attempts of many who are applying for assistance. For individuals with disabilities, American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters provided upon request were often neither fluent in Spanish nor fluent in the adapted ASL utilized by deaf residents of Puerto Rico. Home inspections were carried out without sign language interpretation for deaf applicants in several cases.

These translation failures have combined with other obstacles to hamper efforts of Puerto Rican residents to apply for assistance. A week-long power outage impacted major portions of the island following Hurricane Fiona, preventing many from applying for assistance over the phone. In addition, access to and from many of the most impacted areas was difficult for significant periods following the storm. Areas received Individual Assistance declarations at different times, meaning that many had shorter windows to apply for the program. Despite these issues, the deadline for assistance registration was not extended by FEMA.

“According to FEMA policy, extensions of a registration period can be granted upon request where it is warranted, including instances where it is: ‘necessary to establish the same registration deadline for subsequently designated contiguous areas; there is a continued high volume of registrations; and/or there are significant barriers to registration (i.e., extended loss of electricity)’,” reads the letter. “Puerto Rico met all requirements for an extension of the IA application period, and FEMA’s failure to approve the Puerto Rican government’s extension request represents a violation of due process for these disaster survivors.”

The letter requests that the application process be reopened; that in-person services be offered by Spanish-speaking employees in Puerto Rico and predominantly Spanish-speaking areas of the United States; that ASL interpreters in Puerto Rico be fluent in Spanish as well as Puerto Rico’s adapted ASL; that home inspections for deaf applicants be conducted with translators present; and that the FEMA Call Center be staffed immediately with enough translators to ensure that those in need of translation services have wait times similar to those of English-proficient callers.

Read the letter here.