FEMA Reservist, Dr. Thew Hackett

FEMA Reservist, Dr. Thew Hackett

TIn January and February of 2023, Professor Denise Thew Hackett, the Chair of Deaf and Professional Studies, worked with FEMA to support residents of California in the midst of massive storm flooding.

 Dr. Thew Hackett works with FEMA as a FEMA reservist. She gets deployed occasionally throughout the year to assist people who are experiencing disasters. Her role at FEMA is a disability integration specialist. This means that she works to support all people with disabilities. 

Professor Thew Hackett was deployed to Southern, Central, and Northern California from the middle of January to the middle of February to help residents in the midst of the big flood event that was caused by a variety of storms that had been hitting California. Throughout her service, Dr. Thew Hackett worked alongside two sign language interpreters. 

Her role in California involved many different tasks in different areas. Initially, Dr. Thew Hackett visited different counties to assist in opening Disaster Recovery Centers (DRC). These centers allowed residents to go and register with FEMA in order to receive assistance. Before the centers were open, Dr. Thew Hackett would perform a site assessment to make sure the potential site was accessible for a Disaster Recovery Center. When conducting the site assessment, she had to ensure the site was accessible for people with disabilities and for different functional needs. Professor Thew Hackett would go to the site, take pictures and measurements, and write a report that also included some recommendations on how the particular site could improve accessibility. This type of work typically has a 1 or 2-day turnaround as FEMA wants to open DRCs at multiple locations for the survivors as quickly as possible. 

Once the Disaster Recovery Center was open, Dr. Thew Hackett would go back to the site to evaluate the path of travel to ensure accessibility, and to train DRC staff on how to use different accessible tools that individuals with disabilities could benefit from utilizing.  Some of the tools included a pocket talker, reading or magnifying glasses to help with vision, iPads to provide captioning or remote interpreting, and visual cards to assist people who have difficulties with communication.  Each Disaster Recovery Center had a table with all of these tools. Dr. Thew Hackett would also train the DRC staff on some cues indicating that the survivors might be struggling with hearing or reading. From there, the DRC staff can encourage the individual to try some of the accessibility tools to lessen some of the communication frustrations during the application process. The pocket talker is the most reported tool that is used at each center, and many hard-of-hearing individuals shared their appreciation of this tool, given that the DRC is often a noisy environment. 

Another task Professor Thew Hackett performed was reaching out to local representatives in the community who served people with disabilities, to share information about the Disaster Recovery Center and the assistance that FEMA would provide for people that come to the DRCs. Dr. Thew Hackett explained,

“People with disabilities are often left out of these types of processes and do not receive accurate information about disaster assistance. We reach out to partners in the community that might be able to disseminate FEMA information to people with disabilities.”

Lastly, Dr. Thew Hackett participated with the disaster survivor assistance (DSA) crews. This is a FEMA crew that goes into communities within days after a disaster. They walk through affected areas as a small group. DSA crews primarily focus on addressing the needs of underrepresented populations that may be hard to reach by traditional channels. Sometimes these individuals have not been able to get out of their home due to washed-out roads or bridges, or their vehicle has been damaged from the disaster. For some individuals with disabilities, this might mean that their ramp that connects the individual to the outside of the house has been damaged or washed out. Hackett would go door-to-door with the DSA crew, letting people know about the resources available at the DRCs. Also, she also teaches the DSA crew some cues that might indicate that someone in the house might have disability or access and function needs, and how to build rapport with the families to collect the information for services. Building rapport is essential to earn trust, especially when we show up to homes wearing our FEMA uniform. 

Dr. Thew Hackett shared,

“Working for FEMA allows me to ensure that individuals with disabilities or access and function needs are not left behind during the critical period of recovery after a disaster”

The sooner the recovery begins with support, the sooner we can begin the healing process through rebuilding. This is a critical aspect for overall psychological and social well-being.

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