After the Hurricane: Rabia Belt on Challenges Facing People with Disabilities in Disasters

When Harvey hit the Texas coast on August 25 as a Category 4 hurricane, the force blew roofs off of buildings, uprooted trees, and opened the skies to a deluge of water that accumulated to some 50 inches in the vast metropolis of Houston. Evacuation became the priority for thousands of stranded residents, most of whom had to swim or walk through flood waters to meet rescue workers. Just two weeks later, Hurricane Irma touched down in Florida, also at Category 4 strength, with residents once again fleeing. But what of people with physical disabilities —those without the ability to swim, walk, or stand? What about people with mental disabilities, who might become confused, angry, or inconsolable in a crisis like this? Here, Stanford Law School Assistant Professor Rabia Belt discusses the law and challenges facing people with disabilities in crises.

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Stanford Law School Assistant Professor of Law Rabia Belt

First, can you describe the challenges facing people with disabilities in a crisis like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma?

Natural disasters are difficult for everyone, but they are a particular challenge for people with disabilities. Emergency preparedness plans may not address the problems that people with disabilities face. For instance, they may not have private transportation to evacuate, or transportation provided for the government may be inaccessible. For instance, evacuation busses may not have wheelchair lifts. Plan information, such as written materials or sirens, may be inaccessible for people with visual or hearing impairments. Shelters may lack sufficient electrical plugs for people who may need constant connections for their equipment. Shelters may deny entry to support animals. Rescuers may rescue the person, but not their medical equipment. Thus, people may lose crucial equipment such as ventilators when they escape, or their equipment may become contaminated. People may be bused to institutions far away from their homes “for their own good” and it may take them a long time, if ever, to leave institutionalized care after the emergency is over. People may lose important documents during the disaster that might be crucial for new or continued government benefit eligibility later.

What is the scope of the problem?

We don’t have good numbers on how people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by natural disasters, but this may provide a clue: AARP reported that 73% of Hurricane Katrina-related deaths were of people age 60 and over, even though this population was only 15% of the total population of New Orleans.

Are there federal guidelines or laws in place that require rescue workers to be trained in helping the disabled in a natural disaster, and equipment available to them?

The question is whether the government services provided in disasters actually live up to that mandate. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be the case in many respects.

The National Council on Disability has prepared several reports on emergency planning and disability. They are available on the NCD’s website. FEMA has a webpage with Hurricane Harvey resources for people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires reasonable accommodations for government services.

How have the needs of the disabled been met during and after hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida?

Houston is fortunate to have Maria Town. She was the disability policy lead in the Obama White House and is now the head of the Houston Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities. She has done a great job identifying the particular needs of people with disabilities with respect to Hurricane Harvey before the storm hit, disseminate crucial information in multiple ways, and partnered with disability advocacy groups on the ground to provide immediate assistance. For example, she has arranged for ASL translation in shelters so that Deaf and hard of hearing evacuees can receive information. As another example, autism-serving organizations have organized to assist families. Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a disability advocacy group that began to focus on disaster relief for people with disabilities during Hurricane Katrina, has been doing invaluable work on the ground in Houston. I would urge people to donate to Portlight so they can continue their work.

The big actor in Florida WRT disaster and disability is also Portlight, where they have been on the ground providing essential help to people in need.

A Category 5 hurricane landed in the Caribbean today [Sept. 5] and is barreling toward Florida. How can we do a better job preparing for the needs of everyone going forward?

The key is to anticipate problems by including disability concerns in emergency plans when they are created, partnering with people with disabilities and disability advocacy groups, and pushing emergency management organizations such as the Red Cross to provide clear direction on what they are doing for the disability community.

Rabia Belt is an assistant professor of law at Stanford. She is legal historian whose scholarship focuses on disability and citizenship.