Serving the Hardest Hit

Centering People with Disabilities in Emergency Planning and Response Efforts.

It’s often said that natural disasters don’t discriminate—that no individual is more or less likely than another to fall victim to a large-scale natural disaster. But the truth is that people with disabilities—particularly those living in disaster-vulnerable, low-income communities1—endure disproportionate harm.2 For the purpose of this issue brief, the term “disability” includes those with physical and mobility disabilities; sensory disabilities such as Deafness or Blindness; and learning, mental health, neurodiverse, and intellectual or developmental disabilities. It also includes people with a chronic illness and/or in recovery for substance use disorders, as well as those with a history of these conditions. All these categories could include individuals aging into disability.

Indeed, in the United States, people with disabilities are 2 to 4 times more likely to die or sustain a critical injury during a disaster than people without disabilities.3 This increased level of risk is due to the difficulty that individuals with disabilities have evacuating without assistance,4 accessing lifesaving medical equipment during power outages,5 and accessing accurate emergency information and effective emergency services.6 The still-unfolding damage from Post-Tropical Cyclone Florence,7 the recent wildfires ravaging the western United States,8 and the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s reverberating trauma9in Puerto Rico are all potent reminders of the heightened perils those with disabilities face during extreme weather events.

The now nearly 1 in 410 Americans with disabilities have complex access requirements and functional needs during times of natural disaster. Unfortunately, these needs have failed to gain significant notice. The noise of a White House intent on neglecting its responsibility to the health and safety of vulnerable U.S. communities during disasters and of price gouging11 for lifesaving medication in the wake of emergencies, as well as the always prematurely fading media spotlight12 on the never-ending aftermaths faced by disaster-torn communities, serve to detract from making the needs of people with disabilities a national policy priority.

In light of overwhelming scientific trends pointing to the increasing frequency and strength of extreme weather events—and as the nation observes National Emergency Preparedness Month this September—federal and local leaders must create a long-term preparedness, response, and recovery framework that centers the needs and supports the resilience of the disability community.13 Of the roughly 10 million people living in parts of the country forecasted to be directly affected by Florence’s high winds, storm surges, floods, and power outages, close to 3 million have disabilities.14 And while local officials and agencies made concerted efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities had adequate time and resources to reach safety ahead of the storm,15 community emergency evacuation and shelter plans still too often fall short. These shortcomings result in greater exposure to harm and potentially life-threatening conditions for these vulnerable residents.16

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