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December 2005

by T.K. Small

It would almost be cliché to write a column offering the usual heartfelt sympathies to the recent victims of Hurricane Katrina. Certainly everyone has been moved by the scenes of devastation and despair, and has contributed to the recovery effort in some way. Beyond assisting people in the Gulf Region with donations and prayers, there are some important lessons about disaster preparedness that people with disabilities must understand.

The Disability Community needs to get involved with all levels of disaster preparedness planning. Whether it is the city, state or federal Government, there are (or should be) plans for responding to disasters either natural or manmade. Part of any official disaster plan must deal with people with disabilities. If the official recommendation is for citizens to evacuate, and the Government is providing transportation, are the vehicles accessible? A person that uses a wheelchair is more likely to ask this question than an able-bodied person. Also, people generally are unaware of the poverty that most people with disabilities experience. Allowing and encouraging people to stockpile medications and supplies would help people survive a disaster. Although it would cost Medicaid and insurance companies some money, it is definitely a worthwhile expense and should be part of disaster preparedness in New York State. When we are part of the planning process, we are more likely to get a better result.

We also need to hold public officials accountable for the failure of disaster plan development and the failures of how they respond in the midst of a crisis. It is not acceptable that in one nursing home alone in New Orleans, more than 30 people perished because they were not evacuated. Last year in July, 2004, President Bush signed Executive Order 13347 which mandated that the Department of Homeland Security create an Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities (see Somehow I don't think that the promise of Executive Order 13347 has been fulfilled when it is discovered that a large percentage of the those who lost their lives had some form of disability.

Probably the most important lesson of Hurricane Katrina is that we must take more personal responsibility for our own safety. Regardless of what comprehensive disaster plans that the Government may have prepared, when the crisis hits, anything can happen. As one NYC official told me "When buildings are falling, all bets are off."

For our community, even under the best circumstances, transportation is difficult. In the middle of a disaster it is possible that you will get stuck wherever you are for a couple of days. In locations where you spend most of your time, you should gather the things you will need to survive. During the blackout two years ago, my telephone didn't work and I didn't have any water. Now I have a telephone that works without electricity and I always keep bottled water on hand. Perhaps I should make this recommendation to FEMA.

Editor's Note: Everyone, disabled or not, is also advised to keep an ICE entry (under ICE) in your cell phone. ICE stands for In Case of Emergency. Put there the several numbers you would want people to contact should anything happen to you: such as your family member, your doctor, your friend. You should also keep an ICE card in your wallet.