Disaster and Disability

Wow, what a day! Up at 3:30 a.m., to catch a flight to D.C. Seems to be a travel theme to my writing these days, right? Drove myself to the airport, no traffic to speak of at 4 a.m. Parked the car, got to the gate with an hour to spare until takeoff.

Full day of meetings, got to see old friends and meet some new ones. The focus of the day? Emergency preparedness and people with disabilities, and coalition building to ensure that no one is left behind when disaster strikes.

Heard from people all over the country about their experiences, both positive and negative. The negative? A man with cancer evacuated from a nursing home only to be kept in a closet in a second nursing home until he died two months later. The positive? Two moms of toddlers who are technology dependent to live became the heroes of the disability community after the floods that ravaged Louisiana last summer, becoming the go-to for supplies, resources and support for families of other kids with disabilities.

The point? To learn from each other. To organize. To plan for the future. It isn’t a question of if Louisiana will flood again. It is a question of when. It isn’t a matter of if Oklahoma will get hit by a tornado. It is simply a matter of when.

So the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a newly formed nonprofit, hosted today’s meeting, inviting stakeholders from the disability community, government, and other nonprofits to share the room, learn from each other and chart a way forward.

I never knew I’d be so enthralled with weather. I used to laugh at my husband whose cocktail party conversations often centered around the water shortage in New Mexico or the earthquake that was sure to hit California. Now, I’ve become that person, a regular Weather Channel junkie. I know about weather patterns. I know who is getting rain. Where the wildfires are. The latest tornado touchdown. I could jump into the anchor desk on any day or night without batting an eye. Who’s laughing now?

It is amazing that there’s so much to learn from how we prepare for and respond to disasters. Who is at the table, and who isn’t. We learned that in California with the recent evacuations due to the potentially overflowing dam, people with disabilities had trouble evacuating because the paratransit providers who were supposed to be the first line of evacuation assistance for them had no idea. They were shut down and evacuated themselves.

So, the whole point of today? To underscore the need for communication between emergency managers, people with disabilities and disability organizations. To ensure that we work together NOW so that when there’s a disaster in the not so distant future, people with disabilities who are affected can be safely evacuated, sheltered, and ultimately returned home.