Disaster Needs in the Disability Community Aren’t Being Met

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, disability rights activists Nick Dupree and Alejandra Ospina were trapped in their twelfth floor apartment, unable to evacuate because the elevators had shut down — and even if they could get downstairs, they couldn’t access transit or a safe space to evacuate. Nick needed a ventilator to breathe along with other powered medical equipment for survival, relying on heavy and expensive batteries that lasted only a few hours before needing to be recharged.

If New York City had a functional and well-outlined plan for disabled residents, Nick and Alejandra would have faced a disruption in their daily lives, but a manageable one. Instead, they faced the very real risk of losing their lives — until social media users across the country united to get help to the stranded couple. They, like many other disabled New Yorkers, relied on the kindness of strangers to survive the storm, and unwittingly highlighted the city’s indifferent approach to disaster planning.

This wasn’t the first time the government had become painfully aware that it had a problem with disaster planning in the disability community, which has some very unique needs when it comes to evacuation and shelters. Wheelchair users, for example, need assistance getting to the ground floor of buildings, while shelters are often inaccessible, lacking ADA-compliant ramps, bathrooms and other infrastructure.

Other disabled people need a reliable source of electricity to supply power to ventilators, BIPAP machines and other medical equipment. Some need skilled nursing care at home, making it critical to have aides and nurses who can supply their needs. In some cases, sheltering in place is the best option for disabled people — in other crises, orderly evacuation is critical to get them to safety as efficiently as possible.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the United States experienced a painful disaster planning wakeup call. Across the city of New Orleans and the surrounding region, nearly 2,000 people died both in the storm and as a result of infrastructure problems after the storm. Many of them were disabled, including those who died in hospitals and other medical facilities that should have been prepared to meet their needs, as well as people who died in the abominable conditions of the Superdome. One developmentally disabled man was shot in the back by police. Groups like the National Council on Disability documented Katrina’s toll on the disability community and demanded that the government invest in serious disaster planning.

Seven years later, it happened all over again with Superstorm Sandy. Disabled New Yorkers unable to leave their homes were largely abandoned by the city, and even the Red Cross and other aid organizations had no plans for dealing with their needs. Instead, Occupy Sandy volunteers descended upon communities effectively neglected and left to die, delivering food, water,and other aid — and for the disability community, attempting to meet the needs of citizens with complex medical issues. In many cases, volunteers found people who had been trapped in their apartments for days, surviving only on what they had on hand. Despite the claim that the government will provide aid within three days after a major disaster, some storm victims had been waiting for over a week.

The situation with Sandy was so atrocious that nearly one million disabled people filed a class action suit, and the judge ruled in their favor, determining that the city had inadequate plans in place for supporting the disability community after disasters. He was particularly concerned by evacuation plans for people with mobility impairments, as the city assumed that people were capable of getting to the ground floor of their buildings and getting onto transit vehicles provided for evacuation purposes — but that wasn’t the case for over half a million New Yorkers. The loss was a blow to the city, but another reminder to the nation that it wasn’t prepared to accommodate disabled residents in disaster situations.

As Americans face down Katrina’s tenth anniversary, it’s a time for reflection on the numerous social and political failings associated with the storm, which devastated a traditionally Black, low-income region of the nation and was characterized by painfully inept, scrambling attempts at providing aid with no real disaster plans in place. Unfortunately, many U.S. cities still lag on disaster planning even with the awareness of what happened during both Sandy and Katrina — and they’re especially ill-prepared to meet the needs of vulnerable populations like disabled people, older adults and children.

A functional disaster plan for the disability community must address how to evacuate people with limited mobility, how to get people to accessible shelters, how to obtain a stable supply of electricity, how to connect nurses with disabled people who need them, how to protect access to vitally needed medications and therapies, and how to safely assist those with developmental, intellectual, and cognitive disabilities who may be frightened, confused, or traumatized in a disaster. This requires not just thoughtful planning on paper, but also practicing disaster drills with various agencies that will be involved in a real crisis, and developing infrastructure to support disability evacuation plans — for example, all structures used as shelters need to be brought up to ADA standards, and generators need to be routinely inspected and maintained.

Until the United States takes a serious look at handling disability needs in disasters, it’s doomed to repeat the disasters of Sandy, Rita, Irene, Katrina and more.

Photo credit: David Shankbone

47 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallusabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran1 years ago

thanks goodness people helped them.

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Uddhab Khadka
Uddhab Khadka1 years ago

Thank you.

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Vikram S.
Vikram S1 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Roslyn McBride
Roslyn McBride1 years ago

It seems disabled people, in the U.S., whether mentally or physically disabled, are placed at risk in many different ways. Not satisfactory.

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ERIKA SOMLAI
ERIKA SOMLAI1 years ago

noted

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Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola1 years ago

Thanks for sharing

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H M.
H M1 years ago

What about those who can't drive or don't have access to other transportation?

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha Russell1 years ago

Thank you

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Winn Adams
Winn Adams1 years ago

Noted

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