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Emergency planning often misses disability needs: new hurricane Katrina report pinpoints several response gaps.

In times of emergencies, the needs of people living with disabilities are often overlooked, according to a recent report that calls for new initiatives that bring disabled people into the emergency planning process.

For example, of the six local emergency managers surveyed in areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana affected by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005, five reported no contact with local disability organizations before the storm and only two said disability groups had been involved in the emergency planning process, according to "Assessing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Persons with Disabilities." While the January report, which was funded via the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, focused on the impact of Katrina, its recommendations address the preparedness gaps that are likely found throughout the nation in regard to people with disabilities.

"People with disabilities need to be aware that they've got some responsibilities when it comes to being in harm's way," said APHA member Glen White, PhD, a co-author of the report and director of the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas. "But it's also important that people with disabilities advocate to local emergency managers and other policy-makers the importance of including people with disabilities in the planning process upfront."

In addition to emergency management personnel, the report's authors also surveyed and interviewed people associated with centers for independent living, which are nonresidential organizations designed and operated by people with disabilities that provide an array of independent living services. Among the Katrina-affected centers for independent living, report authors found substantial gaps in planning and communication. Four of six centers for independent living surveyed had no staff with disaster preparedness training and five centers had no plans that would enable them to continue services if a disaster hit. While some centers surveyed had a relationship with local emergency personnel, none had developed a formal emergency plan in collaboration with emergency managers. Also, the majority of centers reported that they expected the people they serve to initiate their own preparedness plans, and only one center surveyed had preparedness information available.

The findings of the Katrina report may not be surprising to those familiar with previous research on people with disabilities and emergencies. White is also involved in the three-year Nobody Left Behind study, which is based at the University of Kansas and is charged with investigating whether local emergency plans address and include people with disabilities. As part of the study, researchers randomly selected 30 U.S. counties to investigate, finding that only 20 percent have anything dealing with people with disabilities in their emergency plans, White told The Nation's Health.

One of the problems people with disabilities encounter is that emergency planners often group them in the same category with special-needs populations, such as pregnant women and people for whom English is a second language, White noted, and when faced with a such a diversity of difference, it can be hard for emergency planners to meet any one need in an appropriate way. But even changing emergency language, such as calling special-needs shelters "functional support shelters" instead, would help highlight people with disabilities and their needs during the planning process, White said. For example, during Katrina many people with disabilities had difficulty maneuvering in and around shelters.

"Don't look at us as special, but look at what people need," said White, a past chair of APHA's Dis-Ability Forum.

To shore up such preparedness planning, the disability report made a number of recommendations. Among them are creating a new initiative to bring together statewide independent living councils and emergency management in every state; creating a disaster response and recovery curriculum for centers for independent living; developing community efforts to identify people with disabilities who need assistance; and investing in back-up support systems that would enable people with disabilities to maintain access to social and medical services.

"People have to be more involved and have a voice to make sure they're included," White said.

For a copy of the report, visit
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Author:Krisberg, Kim
Publication:The Nation's Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2007
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