- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Four years after Hurricane Katrina exposed major deficiencies in the capacity of governments to evacuate and care for the disabled during a natural disaster, America’s most vulnerable citizens are barely considered in most emergency plans, according to a report being issued Wednesday by the National Council on Disability.

The report says huge gaps exist in those emergency plans despite an executive order issued by President Bush in 2004 urging federal and local governments, as well as private organizations, to consider the unique needs of the disabled when planning rescues and preparing to provide emergency shelter.

The 500-page report also criticized government disaster planners for failing to seek input about the needs of the disabled from the community and its advocacy groups. Among other problems the report cited were issues involving service dogs, relocation in trailers and mobile homes, the effectiveness of various warning systems and different transportation needs.

The independent federal agency’s report, titled “Effective Emergency Management: Making Improvements for Communities and People With Disabilities,” said the exclusion of issues affecting the disabled from disaster planning is a long-standing problem and that the details “have typically been limited to a few lines in an emergency plan, if they are mentioned at all.”

“Although some improvement in this area is evident, catastrophic events such as Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires exposed the gaps that still exist in many emergency plans and preparedness efforts,” said the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times. “These events reinforce the need for additional action to protect the lives of people with disabilities against the destructive nature of disasters.”

With the exception of a single recent simulated-emergency exercise by the Department of Homeland Security, government agencies continue to ignore the disabled population when crafting emergency plans, the report said, repeatedly stressing the need for planners to consult directly with those who are disabled to better understand their particular needs during a disaster.

” ‘Disabilities’ were generally placed into one large category, without consideration for the unique needs associated with each type of disability. Emergency planners often decided what people with disabilities needed without consulting those people,” the report said. “This practice further alienated people with disabilities and increased their vulnerability during disasters.”

A separate report from the Special Needs Assessment for Katrina Evacuees (SNAKE) project found that many emergency shelter planners had little interaction with the disabled community before Hurricane Katrina.

“Many of the problems incurred by emergency personnel during the response phase of a disaster could be addressed if planning included people with disabilities. It is imperative that people with disabilities have a voice and be at the table for all stages of disaster planning,” the National Council on Disability’s report said.

Emergency car loudspeakers, weather-warning radios or even television alerts are not the most effective ways to deliver information to the disabled during an emergency, the report said.

“And existing warning systems may be inadequate for rapid onset events, such as sirens that cannot be heard during high-wind events,” the report said.

On the other hand, vibrating pillows could save lives.

The report cites Jim Davis, emergency management coordinator for Pittsylvania County, Va., who used a $5,000 grant to buy radios then engineered them to vibrate pillows as a warning mechanism, the report said.

“New technologies may soon address these barriers,” the National Council’s report said.

Some communities are not waiting for new gadgets to hit the shelves, and are taking advantage of current technology. For example, OK-WARN, a system for the deaf in Oklahoma, instantly notifies e-mail address and pagers when the National Weather Service issues a tornado alert.

The Homeland Security Department maintains a Web site at www.disabilitypreparedness.gov for emergency managers to plan and respond to emergencies involving the disabled. The site currently provides information involving the H1N1 flu outbreak.

Simple considerations such as evacuating the disabled along with family members can be key to saving lives, the report said.

“To illustrate, a lack of adequate transportation impeded evacuation efforts before Hurricane Katrina. Family members and caregivers refused to leave relatives or clients behind who could not walk to bus locations or were not provided with accessible transportation,” the report said.

Some lessons have been learned, particularly in New Orleans, where tens of thousands of residents refused to evacuate despite repeated warnings from the National Weather Service and on orders from city and state officials.

Ken Fisher, New Orleans operations section chief for the Office of Emergency Preparedness, said in 2008 that it is important to “create and maintain an environment where the decision to evacuate becomes more desirable than remaining behind.”

Making sure public transportation allows those with service animals or seeing-eye dogs to travel with their pets and that shelters have adequate handicapped features would be a significant step, the report said.

“Ensure that service animals, medical devices and equipment are transported to safety with their handlers,” the report said. “Offer medical support and veterinary support.”

“Train volunteers and staff on issues involving a full range of disabilities, including disability etiquette, service animals and communication procedures,” the report said. “Take steps to ensure the dignity, privacy, and independence of shelter residents.”

The disabled also have special needs when it comes to temporary housing in trailers and mobile homes after a disastrous event, including proximity to public transportation and health care facilities.

“Formalize programs that check for mold, formaldehyde and other toxins that can have a heightened effect on those with disabilities or medical conditions,” the report said.

Scores of recommendations are included in the study, such as suggestions that disability coordinators be hired at regional FEMA offices and that the disabled be included in emergency exercises and recovery plans. The report also recommends that disaster recovery funding include coverage costs associated with health care disruption, loss of medical equipment, caregiver expenses, transportation and costs associated with seeing-eye dogs or other service animals.

Insurance companies should be mandated to cover nursing homes during evacuations, and entitlement checks should be released before an event so that recipients are more willing and able to evacuate, the National Council on Disability report said.

The report was to be released publicly Wednesday morning at the National Conference on Community Preparedness in Arlington. The report is part of the National Council on Disability’s congressional mandate to collect information on federal laws, policies and practices that affect the disabled.

• Audrey Hudson can be reached at ahudson@washingtontimes.com.

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