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October 6, 2021

Pressley Questions FEMA Administrator on Addressing Trauma Caused by Natural Disasters

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WASHINGTON – Yesterday, in a House Oversight Committee hearing, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) questioned FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell about the trauma caused by natural disasters and the need to expand eligibility for FEMA’s Crisis Counseling Program (CCP), which provides short-term mental health resources for survivors. Currently, support through this program is only available following “Major Disaster Declarations,” but not “Emergency Declarations.”

In response to Rep. Pressley’s questioning, Administrator Criswell acknowledged the importance of expanding eligibility for the program and committed to working with the Congresswoman on her proposal to ensure more impacted communities are eligible for support through the CCP.

A partial transcript of Rep. Pressley’s exchange with Administrator Criswell is below, and the video is available here.

Transcript: Pressley Questions FEMA Administrator on Trauma Caused by Natural Disasters
House Committee on Oversight and Reform
October 5, 2021

REP. PRESSLEY: Thank you, Madam Chair for convening this important and timely hearing.

Certainly natural disasters are disruptive and traumatic life events. To suddenly lose your home, your savings, family heirlooms, or even the lives of loved ones, has devastating impacts on survivors’ mental health.

When this trauma is left unaddressed, survivors can develop drastic mental health consequences. In fact, experiencing a natural disaster by age five is associated with a 16% increase in mental health or substance use issues in adulthood. Again, experiencing a natural disaster by age five is associated with a 16% increase in mental health or substance use issues in adulthood.

A large scale study of earthquake survivors found that 1 in 4 had PTSD. Fortunately, Administrator, FEMA already does have a program in place that assists territories and tribes after a disaster to address the immediate mental health impacts.

Administrator Criswell, can you please tell us what the Crisis Counseling Program is and how FEMA has worked with localities to help survivors in communities across the country?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Thank you, Congresswoman. You know, our mental health is so important both for disaster survivors as well as, I stress it for my employees as well. And our Crisis Counseling Program is definitely a tool that is available to help disaster survivors manage the stress and cope with the losses that they’ve experienced from this disaster. It’s a program that’s available under the Individual Assistance Program when that is authorized for a Major Disaster Declaration and executed by the state. A really important resource available to help individuals that have been impacted by a disaster.

REP. PRESSLEY: Thank you. And I thank you also for including your staff in that. You have to heal the healers as well.

This lifesaving program has been deployed nationwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and in New York following the September 11th terrorist attacks to name a few. However, there are many people who survived disasters, from terrorist attacks, to mass violence and natural disasters, that can’t take advantage of this program.

Administrator Criswell, can you, as you know, there are two types of disaster declarations, Major Disasters and Emergency Declarations. Is the Crisis Counseling Program currently available following Emergency Declarations?

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Congresswoman, no, it is not currently available for Emergency Declarations.

Okay. Over the last decade alone, there have been more than 4,000 Emergency Declarations in the United States.

Now I represent Boston and the Boston Marathon attack, you know, the ripple effect of that trauma, some of it was immediately manifesting, but some manifested later. And I think it’s time to ensure survivors of all disasters can access counseling and be connected to long-term mental health services.

I appreciate your agency has worked with me already on my proposal to expand the program to Emergency Declarations and that FEMA does not foresee any hindrances to providing crisis counseling to help more people. We would love to follow up with you beyond this hearing, and would love to hear your response to that.

ADMINISTRATOR CRISWELL: Yes, ma’am. We would be happy to continue providing technical drafting assistance on making that change. Again, so important that we’re taking care of the mental health of those people that haven’t been impacted by these traumatic events.

REP. PRESSLEY: Well, I did also want to, because I always seek to engage those closest to the pain, Manya Chylinski, who’s a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, she shared her story and named that she wishes the assistance provided under the Crisis Counseling Program had existed for her eight years ago.

So it really is time, again, to ensure that survivors of all disasters, can access counseling and be connected to long term mental health services. So we look forward to being in touch with you about that.



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