Do you know what you’d do if your life was threatened by a disaster? Though the headlines rarely report it, too many people with disabilities died during the blockbuster storms Katrina, Sandy and Irene. We may never know how many died, were injured or left homeless by the tornadoes that recently ripped through the middle of the country. Still, I’ve never given a moment’s thought to what I’d do in a disaster; where would I go? If there’s an emergency shelter in my community, is it accessible; could I even get there?
One thing I know for sure, if we’re not at the table where emergency preparedness is being discussed, then we shouldn’t complain if our needs aren’t met when disaster strikes.
Thanks to lawsuits filed after Sandy by disabled New Yorkers who proved those in charge of emergency preparedness failed our community, the federal government woke up (as did New York State) and are demanding that communities develop plans for assisting us during extreme emergencies.
I sit on an advisory committee to the Erie County, N.Y. Office of the Disabled, which this year is laser-focused on the issue of emergency preparedness. During a mock flood disaster training run in the spring by the local Red Cross and emergency medical staff, it was obvious from the minute I entered the emergency shelter that the staff was ill-equipped to handle anyone with a disability. At registration, I was asked about the medications I take, rather than the conditions I was fleeing from, ignoring my immediate (mock) need of being cold and soaking wet after being “evacuated” from my flooded neighborhood. In other words, give me a blanket and we’ll discuss meds later.
Then there was the issue of equipment at the shelter. The basic cots would be a nightmare for most wheelchair users to transfer onto; the restrooms were thankfully accessible, but that might not be true at all shelters, and as for shower facilities if I was stuck there for a few days, well, forget it. There were no shower chairs.
What I need to survive in an emergency shelter is different from others with mobility issues, much less evacuees who have sight, hearing or cognitive impairments. All those needs are heightened during an emergency, and as we know, one size does not fit all. That is the most important reason for more of us to get involved in emergency plans in our communities. (Check with your local Independent Living Center or office of emergency management to find out how to add your ideas.)
God willing, we’ll never be the victims of a natural disaster, but if we are, we want the firefighters, police, and medical personnel to be trained properly so we’re not left to fend on our own — again.