By Anna Lenhart, MPH, Project Manager
As a student at Loyola University, I was l lucky enough to call New Orleans home from 2001 to 2005. During that time, I became well acquainted with the vibrancy of the city, the kindness of its residents, and the cultural, political, socioeconomic and geographic traits that make it unlike any other place in the world. Two months after I moved to Northern Virginia, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, changing the landscape of one of America’s most beloved cities and altering the country’s understanding of natural disaster preparedness.
Hurricane Katrina claimed the lives of over 1800 people across the Gulf Coast, injuring and displacing many more. During the aftermath of the storm and recovery, it became clear that infrastructure failures and the socioeconomic, political and geographic issues associated with the city of New Orleans, compounded, if not caused, unfathomable tragedy – disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable of the city and region’s residents, among them people with disabilities and older adults.
According to Centers for Disease Control, at the time of the storm, adults age 60 and older comprised 15 percent of New Orleans’ population; however, more than 70 percent of those who died as a result of the hurricane were elderly and many had a chronic condition and/or disability., Among non-elderly individuals with disabilities, casualty rates and negative short and long-term effects of displacement and lack of care were also disproportionately felt.
In the year following the storm, the National Council on Disability (NCD) released The Impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on People with Disabilities: A Look Back and Remaining Challenges, a report detailing the effects of the hurricanes on people with disabilities. The report included challenges and recommendations for moving forward.
People with disabilities were disproportionately affected by the Hurricanes because their needs were often overlooked or completely disregarded. Their evacuation, shelter, and recovery experiences differed vastly from the experiences of people without disabilities. People with disabilities were often unable to evacuate because transportation was inaccessible. For example, most evacuation busses did not have wheelchair lifts. Moreover, people with visual and hearing disabilities were unable to obtain necessary information pertinent to their safety because said communication did not comply with federal law. To ensure that people with disabilities do not experience similar injustices during future catastrophes, emergency plans must acknowledge and address the difficulties experienced by people with disabilities discussed within this report, as well as include people with disabilities in rebuilding efforts.
Post-Katrina preparedness planning could no longer ignore the urgency of including people with disabilities as part of the whole population, not a segregated subset of individuals. In 2010, five years after Katrina and nearing the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (ODIC). ODIC leads FEMA's commitment to achieving whole community emergency management, inclusive of individuals with disabilities and others with access and functional needs, by providing guidance, tools, methods and strategies to establish equal physical, program and effective communication access.
The Gulf Coast is still recovering a decade later. Despite economic growth and business development, the residents of New Orleans are still dealing with the aftermath of a disaster that claimed their homes, communities and neighbors. Unemployment and poverty rates are high and availability of accessible and affordable housing is low. A recent article in National Geographic illustrates the issues faced by people with disabilities who returned to the city following the storm.
In many of these cases, people ended up alone and homeless after their caregivers died or became sick after Katrina. For a few years after the storm, mental-health teams would routinely check the Greyhound bus depot, looking for disabled people arriving back from evacuations alone. With 80 percent of the city flooded and affordable housing almost non-existent, homelessness grew exponentially, peaking at an estimated 11,619 people in early 2007. Massive public camps sprouted up in parks and under freeway bridges. The crisis eased as more housing re-opened. Yet still today, with rents nearly double what they were, homelessness in the city is a crisis that most affects disabled people, the elderly, and parents of young children.
In 2015, the ODIC developed and tested a series of tools designed to improve ODIC’s ability to meet the needs of all disaster survivors, including people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs. The ODIC now employs 70 disability integration experts, including 20 American Sign Language Interpreters and four Certified Deaf Interpreters. The ODIC also provides accessible information during emergencies and has developed training courses on disability-inclusive emergency management for federal, state, and local staff members. While resources on accessible emergency preparedness planning have been published, the adoption rate of the recommendations and strategies they contain, remains unclear.
As someone who loves the city, the traditions, and the people of New Orleans, and has worked for the past eight years to promote inclusive policies and programs, I know there is work to be done. Still, I am encouraged by the accomplishments so far and expect continued progress toward ensuring that what happened during Hurricane Katrina never happens again.
“When America embraces the twin principles of inclusion and accessibility for everyday programs, policies, and infrastructure, Americans with disabilities surely will be counted among the survivors of the next disasters.”
For more information or for additional resources on emergency preparedness planning for people with disabilities:
Anna Lenhart has a MPH in Maternal and Child Health. She is a project manager at New Editions and focuses on health and community integration for people with disabilities.