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Opinion: Many People Can’t Physically Flee Disasters. Too Often, We Fail to Help Them

July 8, 2024
Source: CNN

[Written by Luis “Vance” Taylor]

Editor’s Note: Luis “Vance” Taylor is the chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Taylor leads the team responsible for ensuring the needs of individuals with disabilities are integrated into the state’s emergency management systems before, during and after disasters. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

I’ll never forget when my phone rang and I was told we were activating in response to the imminent failure of the Oroville Dam, the tallest in the United States, in the Sierra Nevada foothills north of Sacramento. I’ve never seen our State Operations Center as busy as it was that night in 2017 when we coordinated the evacuation of about 188,000 people. It was the largest non-hurricane evacuation in US history.

And for some individuals with access and functional needs, it was a nightmare.

One of the impacted jurisdictions had, as part of its emergency operations plan, outlined a process to provide accessible transportation resources to individuals who needed them. Unfortunately, nobody from the emergency management team had told the accessible transportation provider that they were part of the plan. So, when the evacuation order went through, the drivers evacuated the area, leaving behind a fleet of accessible vehicles with no one there to operate them.

Imagine being in that situation. All reports indicate that a dam failure is going to send a 30-foot wall of water downstream through your community and, because there’s no memorialized agreement in place with accessible transportation providers, you have no way of getting out.

Meanwhile, you see your neighbor, who got the same evacuation order at the same time you did, quickly toss a “go bag” in her car, hop in her vehicle and drive to safety.

That experience highlights one of many barriers within emergency management: Individuals with disabilities must face and overcome unconscionable hurdles to have the same chance at safety and security following disasters as people without disabilities. The neighbor who is able to quickly flee can take this for granted, because those without disabilities enjoy the benefits of a system that was designed with them in mind.

No two disasters are ever the same — hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes and floods hit with varying intensity, strike diverse landscapes and are amplified to different degrees by climate and countless other factors. Yet virtually all disasters have one critical commonality: They disproportionately impact individuals with access and functional needs, such as people with disabilities and older adults.

Historically, as a nation, we haven’t done a very good job of integrating access and functional needs into the way we plan, prepare, respond to and recover from disasters. For individuals at greatest risk for negative outcomes associated with disasters, the results have been devastating.

This hard truth was put under a bright light during Hurricane Katrina, when 71% of those who passed away were older adults and a disproportionate number of victims had disabilities.

Keep in mind, that was the toll of one disaster in one state.

Now, think about this: We live in a country with more than 336 million people and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one out of every four of us has a disability and, per the US Census, about one out of every six people in our country is 65 years of age or older. This, coupled with an increase in the number, scope and severity of disasters impacting the nation will, without meaningful action to integrate access and functional needs throughout the emergency management process, result in a catastrophic increase of human suffering and loss of life among those deemed to be the most vulnerable among us.

How do we ensure that no one falls through the cracks?

We need to start by recognizing that individuals with disabilities, older adults and anyone with access and functional needs have largely been excluded from full participation in the emergency management process — not just in the United States, but worldwide. This has led to the development of emergency operations plans that address the needs of people who can run, hear and see while overlooking the access and functional considerations of the whole community. Though certainly not intentional, marginalization has occurred, and as a result there has been an unnecessary increase in harm and a deep distrust among traditionally “vulnerable” populations.

Yes, emergency managers are salt-of-the-Earth people. Good, well-intentioned individuals who run toward danger because they want to help. But for decades, they widely utilized exclusive practices that brought emergency managers together with other emergency managers to develop planning, response and recovery processes absent of whole-community considerations.

I have muscular dystrophy and use a power wheelchair. Anytime I enter a room, whether it’s for a work meeting, a birthday party or to attend church, I’m always looking for access. Even at a subconscious level, I scan the room for stairs and ramps, and see if anything is impeding my path of travel.

My lived experience has shaped my perspective. But if you’re somebody who walks, runs or skips into a room, chances are you’re not looking for any of those things. And that’s okay. It’s not that one is good, and the other is bad; it just means that, based on our lived experiences, we each have a different perspective. We can look at the same thing and see it differently.

Instead of developing plans in a vacuum, emergency managers should recognize there has been a history of exclusion and commit to incorporating inclusive processes that bring a diversity of lived experiences and perspectives to the table in preparation for disasters.

There’s been a shift toward inclusive planning throughout the field of emergency management, yet we still see jurisdictions struggling to incorporate the most basic integrated practices, such as providing accessible emergency information.

When emergency press conferences fail to integrate American Sign Language interpreters, lifesaving information literally falls on deaf ears, which means the warnings and advisories cannot be heard or acted upon. When messaging about incidents and events gets posted online using inaccessible formats, people who are blind can’t access them using screen readers. Further, when disaster-related details about evacuation routes and emergency shelters are only shared in English, entire swaths of the population are left not knowing where to go for safety.

Is it any wonder that, when denied critical disaster-related information about what’s coming, how to prepare and where to go for safety, people with access and functional needs may be left unaware, uninformed and unable to take the appropriate actions needed to maintain their health, safety, security and independence?

Even when life-saving information regarding transportation, accessible shelters, support for chronic health needs and more is delivered using accessible formats, individuals with access and functional needs still face barriers and challenges connecting with those resources. This results in disproportionate impacts before, during and after disasters.

To tackle this issue head on, in 2008 California made the unprecedented move of establishing an Office of Access and Functional Needs (OAFN) within the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. The office, which identifies disaster-related needs of all Californians and works in partnership with the community to integrate them throughout the state’s emergency management systems, is the only executive-led state office of its kind in the country. I am proud to lead this critical team.

The OAFN approach to responding to disasters is dynamic and adaptable, which ensures the flexibility needed to address specific community considerations on a disaster-by-disaster basis. OAFN activates within the California State Operations Center and deploys to impacted areas, shelters and local assistance centers during wildfires and floods; during statewide events, the office also brings together individuals with access and functional needs, community-based organizations, emergency managers, state agency/department representatives and other relevant partners to provide briefings and participate in Q&A sessions.

On “blue sky” days between disasters, the office provides technical support and assistance to local jurisdictions across the state, conducts community outreach, presents at conferences and symposiums, reviews emergency operations plans and works with partners to facilitate greater inclusion and integrative disaster planning.

Fulfilling my role in this mission has been the achievement of a lifetime. Yes, I have a master’s degree in homeland security, I have a background in public policy and I’m a subject-matter expert in inclusive emergency management, but beyond my educational and professional experience this journey has been something far more personal.

I’m a first-generation American navigating the world with a degenerative neuromuscular disease. Many of my friends with similar conditions have passed away, but somehow I’m still here. This brings a sense of personal responsibility. I feel the weight of it every day: the duty to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, to represent those who do not have the same platform, to be the advocate in the room for everyone outside that room who may suffer or die if we don’t get it right. It is haunting, and awesome, and rewarding in the most deeply meaningful ways.

California sets the standard for whole community disaster planning and integration. And yet, we maintain a healthy acknowledgment that we’re not ready to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

As a state, and certainly as a nation, our approach to managing the way we prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters with the access and functional needs perspective in mind must continue to evolve. The disaster landscape is ever-changing, and too many lives are on the line to become stagnant.

To be successful in the mission of inclusive emergency management, every city, county and state across the country needs to engage in integrated planning. Each jurisdiction must develop a deep, unwavering commitment to ensuring the needs of all individuals, including those with access and functional considerations, will be addressed. An essential step in this process is developing an official access and functional needs advisory committee, which includes representatives with lived experience, community-based organizations and disability community advocates.

Once formed, states and localities should engage this committee as they develop emergency management plans and procedures, not just at the point of final review and comment. Taking the time to explain, collaborate and solicit critical feedback throughout the entire planning process yields better assistance and outcomes for the whole community.

What’s more, emergency managers across the nation must be empowered with the ability to integrate emergency operations plans. That means training on inclusive communication, evacuation, transportation, sheltering and recovery processes. It means leveraging the guides, proven practices and lessons learned available at our fingertips to reduce suffering and loss of life among people with disabilities, older adults and anyone with an access or functional need.

None of us should accept that, in 2024, people in the most prosperous nation in the world will suffer and die simply because emergency managers failed to develop the inclusive disaster plans needed to save their lives.

Inclusive emergency management is an achievable mission. It’s time to acknowledge the mistakes and shortcomings of the past so we can come together and realize the promise of a safe tomorrow for everyone.

News source: edition.cnn.com/2024/07/07/opinions/disabilities-disasters-challenges-failing-taylor/index.html

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