Remarks of Veronica Villalobos

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Meeting of November 16, 2005, Washington D.C. on Operations in Wake of Hurricane Katrina and Revisions to EEO-1 Report

Madam Chair, Vice Chair Earp, and Commissioners Silverman and Ishimaru, I thank each of you for the opportunity to speak today regarding my detail with FEMA.

In mid-October, ten EEOC employees, including myself, were deployed to Orlando for 2 ½ days of training. We received a crash course on FEMA programs and the Equal Rights Office. Following training, FEMA deployed us to the Gulf states, including Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida. I specifically worked out of the Houston Area Field Office as an Equal Rights Officer (ERO). The Equal Rights Office in FEMA has 2 distinct functions: the internal component that serves as an EEO office for its employees, and the external component that ensure that the survivors' civil rights are not violated.

I focused much of my efforts on outreach to the Hispanic and foreign born communities in Houston, as well as the disabled community in East Texas, including Beaumont, Port Arthur, Galveston, Crystal Beach, Orange, Vidor, and Livingston. We worked to ensure that eligible individuals were receiving the full scope of FEMA services. I made contacts and relationships with local organizations and the Houston Mayor's Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs toward this end. Through these contacts, we identified many of individuals of Hispanic decent who, while eligible, have been concerned about registering with a government agency. The Vietnamese community was also greatly affected by Hurricane Katrina, and so for both the Hispanic and Vietnamese communities, FEMA ensured that literature was available in Spanish and Vietnamese. We further worked on various methods of clearly communicating information about FEMA assistance and providing these individuals with opportunities to register for benefits other than in the Disaster Recovery Centers, such as churches. With respect to the disabled community, specific community organizations and pastors would provide us with the names and phone numbers of individuals who presented with special needs. The survivors' requests varied. For example, one applicant needed assistance registering for a "Blue Roof" (temporary roof), another was in immediate need for an inspector where her wheelchair ramp had been torn away from her mobile home, and still others required trailers that were accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Interestingly, my work in the community was made easier because I am an employee of EEOC. When I would meet individuals in the community, they would ask me how long I had worked for FEMA, and I would explain I was an EEOC employee on detail to FEMA. They appeared to be familiar with the work of Commission because they almost always responded with an instant openness and sense of hope. Their expectation added an even greater measure of responsibility to all my efforts. I also commuted to Disaster Recovery Centers or DRCs in East Texas and monitored for civil rights violations and/or employment discrimination. Once at the DRC, I conducted an ADA review to ensure that the facilities were accessible to individuals with disabilities, and that individuals' reasonable accommodation needs were met. I also made every effort to develop good relationships with the DRC managers and staff, because through them, I gained information about the climate in the community and whether applicants had special needs or concerns. While at the DRCs, we also trained FEMA employees and contract employees on EEO, the work of the Equal Rights office, sexual harassment, and diversity.

My favorite part of going out to the DRCs was having the opportunity to speak with the survivors and gauge their level of comfort with FEMA's efforts. Every person I spoke with had a heart wrenching story. These people had lost everything, and so many weeks after the disasters, they continued to struggle with many things we take for granted, like where they were going to be living and whether their homes were even still standing. Survivors relayed experiences regarding the difficulties and discriminatory practices that they faced even when the entire community was suffering. One elderly woman was in fear because her local government informed her that her home, in which she was still living, would be demolished if not brought up to code. Hurricane Rita had not leveled her home, but she expected that the local government would. Another disabled woman sat in front of me with tears streaming down her face, and she said, "I am one of the lucky ones because I had insurance. I have the financial wherewithal, but I have lost everything." Many survivors described the discrimination they suffered in the housing sector and from businesses. Each of these stories touched me so deeply, but there are not words to adequately express the loss that each individual described.

One thing was very evident from these meetings - the survivors appreciated the person-to-person contact. After long waits I would mention the FEMA 800 number and the web site, but all of them said they preferred to talk to a FEMA employee face-to-face.

The one lesson I came away with is that the burden falls on each of us to make what small differences we can in these devastated communities. Even the small act of donating can make a difference in a person's life. I recall one man at the Urban League walking around and asking anyone who would listen, "Do you know where I can get a pair of size 10 men's shoes?" Every little bit really does help.

Katrina and Rita survivors need our continued support. Although the survivors' stories are no longer on the front pages of the newspapers, a great deal of work remains to be done in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. I am happy to report that I encountered many dedicated FEMA employees, who are working diligently to meet the needs of the survivors. I would like to think that EEOC employees have provide some help to FEMA and perhaps lightened the load of these dedicated employees. I thank the Commission for providing us the opportunity to take the FEMA detail. It was the most rewarding experience of my government career. Thank you.

This page was last modified on November 17, 2005.