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After Hurricane Harvey, Disaster Relief Efforts Are Failing People With Disabilities -- Again

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s Disability Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Our thoughts are with everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. If you are in danger as a result of the storm and have been unable to access the disability-related resources you need, contact the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies Hurricane Harvey Disability Hotline at (800) 626-4959.

As Hurricane Harvey ravages Texas with destructive winds and flooding, disturbing images have emerged of people with disabilities trapped and literally struggling to keep their heads above water. In the Houston area, a woman with muscular dystrophy was trapped in her home until rescuers with a boat arrived to save her, her dog and her power wheelchair. In Dickinson, Texas, 18 nursing home residents had to be rescued from waist deep water. According to the nursing home owner, they were told by officials not to evacuate.

I fear we will see more tragedies in the aftermath of the hurricane, including deaths among the most poor and vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities whose needs were forgotten. There’s already considerable discussion about why Houston wasn’t evacuated, and many excuses being made about the logistics of getting millions of people out of the city. But where are the conversations about protecting those who can’t protect themselves? Outside of the disability community, I’m not hearing them. This could easily turn into another Hurricane Katrina. Have we learned nothing from that tragedy?

Emergency preparedness for people with disabilities isn’t as difficult as it might seem. It’s a matter of logistics and thoughtful planning. When I see a bus or van with a wheelchair lift submerged in floodwaters, I see a missed opportunity to save lives. In the face of an impending disaster like Hurricane Harvey, every accessible vehicle belonging to a public agency or business should be used to get those most in need to safety before they become trapped, injured, or worse. When buses are deployed to evacuate residents from at-risk areas, they should go to nursing homes and low-income senior housing complexes first — and nearby community residents with disabilities should know they can go there to be evacuated. All designated shelters should be wheelchair accessible and have at least one staff member who is fluent in American Sign Language, as well as a nurse or other medical professional who can assist with personal care needs.

Any shelter-in-place or evacuation plan for people with disabilities must include our mobility equipment. Wheelchairs, walkers, oxygen tanks, ventilators and other devices — as well as service and emotional support dogs — aren’t luxuries or family heirlooms. They’re essential for our survival. If someone has to evacuate without their mobility equipment, they can’t simply go to the nearest medical supply store and pick up a replacement. Most wheelchairs, especially power wheelchairs, are highly customized for the individual’s needs. These devices cost $30,000 and up, so they’re impossible for most to afford out of pocket, and it can take months or years to get a replacement through insurance. Many people with disabilities would risk their lives by staying home if the alternative was leaving behind their mobility equipment.

When government officials say to stay in place, they must remember not everyone can survive for days or weeks without power. People who use power wheelchairs, ventilators, CPAP machines and other essential equipment can’t simply go without it. A program to provide backup batteries, solar panels, and/or propane generators to people with disabilities could enable those in areas without a flood risk to stay safe in their homes. When there is a flood risk, like that posed by Hurricane Harvey, officials must remember not everyone has the ability to climb stairs to the second floor, to escape onto their roof or even survive in waist-deep water. When they decide they can’t evacuate a whole city, they can at least get to the people who are least likely to survive the storm.

To do any less is far worse than simple neglect. It is callous indifference towards human life. It’s time we start holding government officials accountable for the preventable suffering and death of people with disabilities during these natural-turned-manmade disasters. There’s no excuse for it whatsoever.

With that said — if the last several disasters have taught Americans with disabilities anything, it’s that we can’t depend on our government or disaster relief organizations to remember we exist, let alone help us. The people who are hurt most are those with the fewest resources and the least ability to help themselves. But I also believe those of us with disabilities who can, must make a plan to protect ourselves — and others. We must act with an abundance of caution, and not trust politicians, police or emergency officials to recommend the right course of action for people like us. I learned this the hard way after needing to escape from a dangerous situation in my own life. We must be ready to evacuate, and do whatever it takes to save our lives.

If you live in an area prone to any sort of disaster (and most of us do), think about your circumstances. If you had to leave suddenly, where would you go? How would you get there? Talk to a friend or relative who lives fairly close by, but in an area that’s safer from the hazard you face. See if you could stay there in an emergency. Scout out local public facilities that could help you if you have to stay somewhere less-than-accessible. Truck stops have accessible bathrooms and often showers. Signing up for a cheap gym membership gives you access to accessible bathrooms and showers. A local hardware store will have lumber to build a quick wheelchair ramp to get up a step or two. Consider buying a portable aluminum ramp; while they do cost $75-$200, it’s a worthwhile investment if you can manage it, and useful for visiting friends and relatives on non-emergency occasions as well.

Keep a go bag ready with the essentials you need for an evacuation. Put in a couple changes of clothes, travel size toiletries, and over-the-counter medications. If you have extra prescriptions, pack those too; if not, make sure you keep your pills in an easy-to-reach place where you can grab them if you need to leave quickly. Secure your birth certificate, ID, credit cards and other essential documents in an accessible place as well.

Plan your form of transportation in advance. If you have a car or a friend who can drive you, that’s ideal. If you don’t have a vehicle, sign up for paratransit and keep the phone numbers of local taxi companies, those with wheelchair accessible cabs if applicable. Go on Craigslist’s ridesharing section and look for someone with a wheelchair accessible vehicle, or even a box truck or pickup truck with a lift gate. Greyhound can get you out of the city if you don’t have a car — and if you don’t wait until everyone else is trying to leave.

Don’t wait to evacuate. If you hear something that makes you concerned, even if government officials say it’s no big deal, go before the rush of other people trying to flee — or at least be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Don’t try to shelter in place alone or with someone who can’t physically assist you if the situation becomes hazardous. Go to a friend or relative’s home. I once took in a disabled friend, her son and their pets because of a wildfire moving towards their home in Southern California. It all turned out fine; the fire changed direction, but none of us regretted her decision to evacuate. We enjoyed a “slumber party” weekend and didn’t have to fear for anyone’s safety. Better safe than sorry.

If you have a disability and can offer resources to those who have fled or may need to flee disaster, offer to help. It doesn’t have to be about money; an accessible shower and bathroom and a warm meal would do wonders for someone who has just lost their home. Many of us have old mobility equipment stashed in our garages; now is the time to donate it to someone in need.

If you don’t have a disability and want to help, think of your neighbors and friends. Is there someone who would need extra help? Do you have a bit of spare cash and time to build a ramp into your house (or buy a portable ramp), in case someone needs a place to stay? Have you done personal care or nursing and could go to an emergency shelter to assist those who need to use the toilet or put on fresh clothing?

Right now, hundreds of able-bodied people are out in boats, putting their lives on the line rescuing seniors and people with disabilities. Some are first responders; many are ordinary citizens. Bravo to them. They deserve our greatest thanks and appreciation.

If you have money to donate, consider Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, one of the few organizations specifically assisting people with disabilities whose needs are frequently neglected by larger agencies. And Trach Mommas of Louisiana is accepting donations of money and supplies for medically complex children impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

The effects of Hurricane Harvey will be felt for months, even years, and that’s especially true for people with disabilities. When the images of broken buildings and flooded streets fade from the news, don’t forget many people with disabilities will still be struggling to rebuild their lives with more complicated circumstances and fewer resources than others in the same situation. That’s when they may need your help most. We must also hold our politicians and officials responsible for the damage they caused through willful neglect, not give them a free pass once things “seem” to be getting better.

I am tired of watching people with disabilities being forced to risk and lose their lives in disasters when they could have been saved. If you’re tired of it too, do something.

Image via Facebook.

Originally published: August 28, 2017
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