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Hurricane Harvey and his Brethren Hit Disabled Hard

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Warshaw Law Firm, advocating for the educational rights of special needs children, is dedicated to protecting the rights of children with disabilities and children who are the victims of or accused of bullying, and assisting families in crisis through mediation and collaborative divorce.

Hurricane Harvey and his Brethren Hit Disabled Hard

  • Julie Warshaw
  • August 31, 2017

Hurricanes hit the most vulnerable the hardest and that applies without a doubt to people with disabilities. The death of Benilda Caixeta, of New Orleans tragically underscores this point.  Ms. Caixeta was found drowned in her apartment, next to her wheelchair, despite her repeated calls to 911 pleading for help. Ms. Caixeta’s death served to emphasize one of the many terrible lessons we learned from Hurricane Katrina.

Once the accounting began for these hurricanes, the government released a variety of studies and reports in an effort to better understand how badly the needs of the disabled and elderly were underestimated. A 2006 publication from the National Council on Disability stated people with disabilities were “disproportionately affected by the Hurricanes [Katrina and Rita] because their needs were often overlooked or completely disregarded. Their evacuation, shelter, and recovery experiences differed vastly from the experiences of people without disabilities.” Former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate in 2013 concluded, “My experience tells me if we wait and plan for people with disabilities after we write the basic plan, we fail.” It is unclear but doubtful that any real changes have been over the last several years leading up to Hurricane Harvey.

We don’t know how many of the 1,800 deaths from Katrina were related to disability, but the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reported that although the elderly represented only 15% of the population of New Orleans at the time of Katrina, 73% of hurricane-related deaths were among persons older than 60. These deaths may have been caused by inaccessible transportation to permit their evacuation (buses lacked wheelchair lifts), failure to receive emergency notifications (broadcaster or emergency service agency notifications were inaccessible for persons with vision or hearing disabilities), or inadequate provisions at emergency shelters, forcing this population to remain in their homes. In addition, post-hurricane relief efforts further compromised the well-being of the special needs population with inadequate, non-accessible housing.

Subsequently in 2016, the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination was created to advise FEMA on “inclusive emergency practices throughout every step of the disaster cycle, with a specific focus on universal accessibility and full inclusion of people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs.” It remains to be seen if FEMA has effectively implemented strategies that are designed to save lives and assist people with disabilities.

One of the new images from Hurricane Harvey involves the horror of nursing home residents sitting in water up to their waists waiting for rescue. Thankfully these people were evacuated quickly, but it is unclear why this situation occurred at all given our previous knowledge of the vulnerability of nursing home patients. Even as Hurricane Harvey continues to batter the Gulf Coast, we pray for all of those who are at risk. We also pray that the accounting for Harvey will prove that we truly learned from our mistakes made during Hurricane Katrina in meeting the needs of persons with disability.