One woman, in a wheelchair, sat in water to her waist when emergency responders arrived. They could not accommodate her chair and told her they’d come back. They never did.
A husband and wife were trapped in their home, with the wife recently out of the hospital and in a wheelchair. A man was turned away from a shelter that wouldn’t admit his service dog.
Those incidents, documented in emails during the frantic hours when Hurricane Harvey’s historic rains and flooding inundated thousands of Houston homes, show disability advocates and government officials scrambling behind the scenes to help disabled Texans trapped by the flooding.
Texas has a system in place to identify people with disabilities who will need extra help during a natural disaster. But it’s unclear whether any of the people described in the emails signed up for or even knew about it. It’s also unclear how many people actually received help through the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry, or STEAR, during Harvey.
But as the recovery continues a year after Harvey’s Aug. 25, 2017, landfall, there’s tension and confusion in the disabled community about whether the registry will actually work when they really need it. As of November, 75,733 Texans were registered with STEAR, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The registry allows people with disabilities and special medical needs to sign up to receive priority status for evacuations, shelters, wellness checks, power and water shutdowns and information on support services.
More than half of STEAR registrants have physical, sensory, mental health, cognitive, or intellectual needs that affect their ability to function independently. Many don’t have a vehicle and have no way to evacuate without assistance.
In a disaster, disabled people are more at risk: wheelchairs or walkers may be left behind during an evacuation, a shelter may not be able to fully accommodate needs like accessible showers for people with mobility impairment, quiet areas for people with autism or space for someone who weighs 350 pounds or more. Some cannot afford multiple nights in a hotel.
While the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Management administers the registry, the agency does not provide direct services to STEAR registrants during emergencies. The agency’s webpage notes that there are no guarantees for help.
“Your information will be provided to participating local governments for their use in developing emergency management plans and to assist them in preparedness and response activities,” according to the website.
While local officials can use the registry to dispatch emergency personnel and plan ahead for who may need special assistance during an evacuation, there’s no requirement that they use the registry — and no protocols for how to use it.
Lex Frieden, a professor of biomedical informatics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and one of the authors of the American Disabilities Act, said “it’s just maddening, frankly” that the database was not used to its fullest potential during Harvey, which caused more than 90 deaths.
“It was a tacit contract that promised people who felt they might need help at some point and volunteered the information, they would be rescued if needed and checked upon after the disaster,” Frieden said.
Rick Flanagan, emergency manager for the City of Houston, said his office and emergency responders were fielding thousands and thousands of calls during the historic storm. Typically, the office uses STEAR five days or more in advance to tell registrants where to go and help them get out of the city. But with the magnitude of Harvey, Flanagan said they wound up not using the system. “We got really tied up with the different locations and multiple locations of events and the high call volumes,” Flanagan said. “We did not use the STEAR structure as it could’ve been used.” Asked if they hoped to use STEAR for future disasters he said: “Oh my god, do we want to use it? Yes we do.”