How Governments Can Keep Disaster Survivors Connected

States need to do more to help residents keep the lights on and stay connected to vital telecommunications networks.
November 2, 2018
Utility workers repair old cables in San German, Puerto Rico. (AP/Ramon Espinosa)
By Olivia B. Wein  |  Contributor
A staff attorney in the Washington office of the National Consumer Law Center

With hurricane season well underway and its destruction continuing to take a toll on states in the paths of Hurricanes Michael and Florence, there's no better time for state and local governments to get serious about developing proactive approaches to keeping residents connected in the days, months and years following a natural disaster.

While restoring power and telecommunications to disaster-impacted areas is life-saving work that demands significant state and federal investment, states are falling short of ensuring affordable access to those networks. Municipalities hit by natural disasters know firsthand that the devastation outlasts the presence of television crews, out-of-state volunteers and federal officials. States need to do more to ensure that residents can keep their lights on and stay connected to resources and loved ones while they are on the long road to recovery.

When homeowners and renters are temporarily or permanently displaced due to mandatory evacuation, damage to the home, loss of employment or other impacts of a disaster, state public utility commissions should require utility providers to suspend disconnection for non-payment during the months-long disaster recovery process. Utilities should discontinue billing and waive late-payment fees as well as deposit requirements for residents forced to relocate or seek temporary housing. They also should be required to expedite the "turn-on/turn-off" process for those in temporary housing.

Similarly, states should encourage utilities to work with households struggling to pay their utility bills while facing unexpected financial obligations, such as repairing a wind-damaged home or replacing a flood-damaged car. Payment plans with an affordable initial payment and payment terms lasting at least a year would help households struggling during disaster recovery.

Low-income residents, many of whom were already struggling to keep up with their utility bills pre-disaster and may already owe back payments, need help to maintain utility services while further cash-strapped during recovery. Community organizations should be enlisted to increase enrollment in available low-income utility bill-assistance programs, since more families are likely to qualify due to the sudden drop in financial resources resulting from the disaster. Utilities should be required to advertise the availability of assistance programs and emergency protections to ensure that consumers are aware of their rights.

Among the programs that should be advertised to disaster survivors is the federal Lifeline program, which provides a subsidy that covers all or a portion of the cost of wireless voice and internet services for low-income consumers who qualify. Individuals enrolled in the SNAP program, Medicaid, housing assistance and other programs for low-income families are likely to meet the eligibility requirements for Lifeline, but too few of them know the program exists and current Federal Communications Commission proposals could severely limit the program's reach. In Florida, where low-income residents are struggling to recover from Hurricane Michael's winds and flooding, just 42 percent of eligible households receive the Lifeline benefit. In North Carolina, where Hurricane Florence brought catastrophic flooding to the doorsteps of thousands of low-income homeowners, only one in four eligible households is enrolled in the Lifeline program.

Maintaining affordable voice and broadband internet service during a natural disaster and after services are restored can be a matter of life and death. In California, for example, residents with phone and internet service can receive county-by-county alerts on the paths of wildfires and receive up-to-the-minute updates, including evacuation orders and other life-saving instructions. Low-income Californians enrolled in the Lifeline program can connect with financial assistance, temporary housing services, rebuilding programs, debris removal and low-cost legal services.

And in Puerto Rico, survivors of last year's Hurricane Maria are using telemedicine to bridge the gap between their medical needs and the availability of doctors. The NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital connects Puerto Ricans with specialists at Cornell and Columbia universities' medical centers. As the island continues to rebuild, patients with affordable broadband internet access can use telemedicine to address ongoing medical needs at home.

While the needs of natural-disaster survivors vary from event to event, low-income residents will consistently need help keeping their lights on and staying connected to a network of resources and support. By urging the FCC to reject proposals to limit the Lifeline program's reach and encouraging utilities to work with displaced residents, state governments can go a long way toward getting survivors the help and tools they need as they start out on the long road to recovery.