Disabled Americans Must Never Again Be Forgotten During Emergency Planning

In April of 2005, the National Council on Disability, to which I was appointed by President Obama in 2011, published a report entitled “Saving Lives; Including People with Disabilities in Disaster Preparedness.” The report predicted that a major hurricane could hit Louisiana with catastrophic consequences for the region, and particularly for the many people with disabilities living in the area.

Less than five months later, Hurricane Katrina hit, with full force. Almost 700 perished in Katrina, the majority of whom were elderly or disabled. One victim from Hurricane Katrina, an elderly disabled woman named Ethel Freeman died in her wheelchair outside of a shelter that she could not access.

During Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the New York area in 2012, subways shut down, preventing people who could not drive from traveling to shelters. Others could not gain entrance to emergency shelters that had inaccessible stairways or narrow hallways, and more faced life-threatening situations because of ventilators, medications that required refrigeration, or prescriptions ran out and caregivers could not reach people with disabilities isolated during the storm.

Most recently, the nation reeled from reports of deaths in a nursing home in Hollywood, Florida, where power outages led to the death of eight residents who were unable to cross the street to a hospital, and died in their beds as Hurricane Irma raged around them.

I speak from personal experience here. In October of 1989, my family survived the Loma Prieta 7.0 earthquake that struck San Francisco while the nation watched the beginning of the World Series being telecast from San Francisco’s ballpark. Pregnant with my second daughter, I considered myself lucky to have been home with my 3 year old at the time. With no cell phones, smoke rising from neighborhood fires, and no idea if my husband and extended family in the area had been injured, I remember well the anxiety that engulfed me, and my gratitude that we had supplies on hand to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake, which lasted for weeks.

Without question, natural disasters are increasing in number, up from about 100 per year reported ten years ago, to more than 300 per year in the current world climate. Saving lives is foremost in the mind of our brave first responders, hurricane, flood, fire and earthquake volunteers and professionals. Yet, each time a natural disaster strikes, we hear that people with disabilities number high among those losing their homes, families, lives.

So what can we do about this? At the most basic level, we have to make a plan.

First we must make our own plan:

We need to plan at every level for the possibility that a natural disaster may occur in our own communities. Whether we are in the hurricane watch areas in the South and along the Atlantic Coast, in Tornado Alley through the Heartland of our nation or in earthquake territory along the U.S. Pacific coastline, we need to have a plan.

Everyone must do so, regardless of whether they have or support a person with a disability. A whole marketplace of emergency preparedness kits, on-line recommendations and toolkits, and instructional materials has risen in response to the increase in natural disasters over the last few years. Basics like flashlights and batteries, water and non-perishable food supplies, tools, blankets, battery operated radios and training to use texts instead of calls during an emergency abound and must be utilized by us all.

But for the 59 million Americans who live with disabilities, and for those who support us, extra planning, from ensuring that medication prescriptions are kept up to date to creating back-up plans for care-givers and neighborhood support, are absolutely mandatory. Especially for people with complex disabilities, and those who are aging and living alone, a plan that takes into account contingencies including evacuation as well as sheltering in place must be well thought out. Do we have enough medication to last until evacuation is possible? Do we need a generator to power ventilators, or refrigerate emergency medical supplies? Does someone nearby know if evacuation is difficult or impossible for those with mobility disabilities? Are we ready to act fast to minimize danger and evacuate safely?

Then, we must join a plan:

Once we have a personal plan, and our homes are prepared, we also need to look outward, to our immediate communities. If you live in a high-rise, who on your floor, in your building, knows where there may be residents in need in the case an evacuation is needed? Does anyone near you know that mobility, assistive devices, medical needs are relevant for you or your loved ones? What can we do for our neighbors in the event a natural disaster strikes?

Now is the time for us to understand how we can serve our micro-community-our florin an apartment building, our block in a city, our neighboring farm.

Finally, we must insist on a plan that includes everyone:

In 2012, a Los Angeles court ruled in response to a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Advocates that emergency preparedness civic plans are subject to, and must comply with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Following Hurricane Irene, New York was held to this standard and work is ongoing in that state to ensure that the tragedies of Hurricane Sandy for residents with disabilities are never repeated. We must insist that every civic emergency preparedness plan includes consideration of accessible shelters, transportation plans for people with disabilities, designated supplies and responders for disabled citizens in need.

We cannot afford to wait, and there is much that we can do right now. Organizations like the Red Cross, and disability specific groups like Portlight (www.portlight.org) and many others are providing real-time assistance to survivors of Harvey, Irma and Maria right now.

Please volunteer, donate, whatever you can. Make yourselves ready, ensure that your loved ones who may need support are ready, and lend a hand to help people with disabilities n the ravaged areas of the country recover swiftly. Show America that during times of crisis, we work together and we include everyone.