How to Help Those With Special Needs Prepare Before a Disaster Strikes

By Joseph Straw

For the disabled and their advocates, the story of emergency management begins with a woman named Benilda Caixeta. An immigrant from Brazil paralyzed by muscular dystrophy, Caixeta was a prolific volunteer and leader among disability advocates in her adopted hometown of New Orleans. Her efforts were well known and resulted in a citation for her work from then-Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco in 2004.

As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the U.S. Gulf Coast late in August 2005, Caixeta, 51, contacted an accessible transportation provider and made arrangements for a ride to a shelter. That ride never arrived. When the storm hit the city on August 29, Caixeta called various government agencies and friends seeking help. Soon, the levee containing the Industrial Canal running alongside her Ninth Ward neighborhood failed. A week later, Caixeta’s wheelchair and her dead body were found floating inside her home.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina not only redefined the scope of catastrophe for which authorities must prepare, it laid bare the stark consequences when the concerns of those with special needs are not addressed. These populations include the disabled, the elderly, those without access to automobiles, and those outside the reach of basic crisis communications. Assisting them, experts say, requires inclusive planning, exhaustive outreach, and an informed approach to privacy and federal disability law.

Who’s Included
The first step toward ensuring accessible evacuations is defining special needs populations, says Barbara Citarella, RN, president of RBC Limited and a consultant to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on serving special needs populations. It’s a more inclusive category than one might assume.
FEMA, in its National Incident Management System Resource Center glossary, defines special needs populations as “those who have disabilities; who live in institutionalized settings; who are elderly; who are children; who are from diverse cultures; who have limited English proficiency; or who are non-English speaking; or who are transportation disadvantaged.”
Advocates and government agencies increasingly use the term “accessibility” and “functional needs” populations to refer to both the disabled and the broader special needs population.
(To continue reading "Hell on Wheels," April's cover story, please click here.)

♦ Photo by  Noël Zia Lee/Flickr


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