home Commentary, North America, Politics Hurricane Harvey has grim disaster planning lessons for disabled people

Hurricane Harvey has grim disaster planning lessons for disabled people


Hurricane Harvey has been at the top of the news all around the world this week. The devastation seen in Texas has left homes underwater and people wading down streets with their entire lives contained in a black plastic bag. On the other side of the world, floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh have killed 1,200 people, leaving millions homeless and destitute.

For anybody caught up in a natural disaster or crisis, the consequences are huge. Leaving and losing your home, not knowing where you can get hold of safe food, and wondering when – or whether – things will ever be ‘normal’ again must be absolutely overwhelming.

Then, as with many horrific situations, those who are less privileged in day-to-day life will also find themselves in more dire straits during the crisis. The risk is intensified for each intersection of oppression a person experiences.

For disabled and chronically ill people, a natural disaster can be even more of a life-or-death situation than for their non-disabled counterparts. For all those able to climb to the roof of their home to be rescued, there will be others unable to get up the stairs. For all those who waded through waist-deep water, there will be others who do not have the strength or balance to do so. And for all those who saved their family and pets, there will be others who perished or who were unable to help those around them.

Imagine if you needed oxygen to stay alive, for instance. Could you rely on the power staying on? Could you escape from your home if that’s where your equipment was? Would you survive an inability to breathe on leaving your house if rescuers were at your door?

Would flood water cause your electric powerchair to short circuit? Those things weigh a tonne so they can’t really be carried, and they cost so many thousands of pounds that many people would be loath to leave them behind. And is the disaster rescue centre, be it a community centre or a school or a furniture shop or a sports hall, accessible to those disabled people who are able to get there?

Would you be able to self-propel your manual wheelchair through torrents of water? Would a blind person be able to find their way through water on streets that are only familiar when dry? Would the risk be too high to risk trying?

Telling people they absolutely must leave their homes does not take into account that, for some people, the possibilities are too unrealistic, or too frightening. Not everybody has a car. Not everybody has somewhere to go. And not everybody has the physical or mental ability to know how to escape from an impending disaster.

While many people switch to radios and mobile devices to find out where to go and how to cope in a disaster, people who communicate differently may find themselves perplexed. If somebody is D/deaf, for instance, and communicates primarily in BSL or ASL, will people who speak a different language be able to make themselves understood?

Other treatments and conditions will be deeply affected by disasters like floods and hurricanes, too. Somebody who has a compromised immune system could find themselves overwhelmed with infections from dirty water and sharing space in a rescue centre with dozens or hundreds of other people. People who have regular chemotherapy or kidney dialysis could find that treatment that may be needed every few days is deprioritised in an emergency situation for those who need treatment right now. Or they may not be able to access hospitals or dialysis centres at all. Where would the staff come from? Can supplies get through? The potential interruptions to care are endless.

Autistic people or those with mental health problems may find a sudden shift to communal living especially hard in the midst of a crisis. A lack of quiet spaces and being away from the familiarity of home can be difficult for anybody to deal with, but people who rely on those more than most will suffer more than most when they are taken away, too.

Even for those with less urgent care needs, getting any kind of healthcare that isn’t dealing with emergencies could be a problem. When the few doctors who are available are dealing with the immediate needs brought about by the disaster, will your repeat prescription for anti-depressants or your routine, planned, pain-relieving surgery be catered for?

What can be done?

Plans need to be made in advance of a crisis taking place, and this responsibility should not fall to the disabled individual alone; structural and infrastructural strategies must be in force and emergency services and first responders should have special training so that they know how to help a disabled person in this kind of situation.

Buildings and healthcare establishments must be accessible, and people donating money or goods – or organising the donations that come in – should consider how they can help disabled people as well as the non-disabled people they may perhaps have had in mind. This could include donating gluten-free food or disability equipment rather than, or in addition to, the other supplies that are requested and needed in a natural disaster.

Photo: Jill Carlson/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.