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Arizonians With Disabilities: Preparing for Natural Disasters
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Arizonians With Disabilities: Preparing for Natural Disasters

As the Carolinas start to recover from Hurricane Florence (just two years after Hurricane Matthew) you might look around the desert and appreciate your inland home. It can’t happen here, right? The floods, the downpour, the apocalyptic weather? Sure, we aren’t prone to hurricanes, tsunamis, or widespread flooding. But we’re prone to power outages, chemical spills, airline crashes and terrorist attacks. And it doesn’t stop at our borders. The Phoenix emergency plan accounts for a huge influx of refugees from California earthquakes.

Please don’t make the potentially grave mistake of thinking you don’t need to pay attention to any of this. We don’t pay attention to emergency preparedness in Arizona. Take it from a former Federal Emergency Management Agency employee. That’s a big mistake. Especially for people with disabilities and people with “other access and functional needs,” the phrase used in emergency management. That’s the world I have worked in for the last two years with FEMA.

What if a chemical spill forced a power chair user to evacuate immediately, sans charger? What if a flash flood damaged important medications? What if there’s a shortage of urological or vent supplies? We learned how to answer those questions the hard way. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, FEMA didn’t know about inaccessible sheltering, handling service animals, Medicaid coverage crossing state lines and handling chair users. One woman who was quadriplegic was left in her home as floodwaters rose. She and her chair were soon found floating. Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act the following year which required FEMA to hire a disability integration advisor. They chose Marcie Roth, past executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, and she built it into the now substantial Office of Disability Integration and Coordination. The good news is the existence of a very sophisticated emergency management and response system. It’s called “NIMS,” for the National Incident Management System. It’s designed for “all hazards” at any scale and is used to get the response and recovery process up and running following an incident quickly and effectively. 

There has since been real progress in understanding and addressing the needs of disaster survivors with disabilities. That includes training local emergency managers and “disability partners” on emergency preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery. The bad news is emergency management systems still aren’t quite sure how to take care of people with disabilities. Part of the issue is the growing and real commitment of the emergency management world to accessible and functional needs. And whether or not you have a disability, your part is preparedness. Your life—or someone else’s—may depend on it. Take a close look at the FEMA, AARP, CDC and Red Cross websites. Make a serious commitment to the recommended measures. Don’t wait for the worst to happen.

Image credit: Photo by Author

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