Why Disaster Hits the Disabled Hardest

Courtesy of The Sacramento Bee

Despite valiant responses, the destructive November 2018 California wildfire  left only ashes and ruins. But as the death toll proliferated, it became abundantly clear that people with disabilities were left behind too.

It’s a pattern we’ve seen before. In the wake of natural disasters, people over sixty or those with disabilities make up a massive percentage of the casualties. Hurricane Katrina is a prime example. Elderly citizens made up 73% of those who passed, despite being only 15% of the population, and the National Council on Disability records a similarly disproportionate percentage for those with disabilities.

Emergency assistance has certainly improved, but November’s Camp Fire in Butte County served as a poignant reminder of how far we are from solving the challenges faced by these especially vulnerable people during emergencies.

Butte County, California has a rate of disability around twice that of the state – at 25% – and response teams that sent out buses to retrieve victims were quickly spread too thin. Shelby Boston, director of social services in the county, told the Sacramento Bee that “by the time [her] staff could make those calls, the fire had already run through the areas [they] were most concerned about.” She expressed frustration at the limited time her team had, but emphasized that the event was “beyond what anyone could have imagined could have happened.”

Unfortunately, advocacy organizations explain that much of the damage could be chalked up to lack of communication. When disaster struck, many disabled citizens were unaware of the fire. An additional amount didn’t know they were at risk as the county failed to use the Wireless Emergency Alert network, which could have increased knowledge about risks and evacuation times.

For those who did attempt to evacuate, knowledge may have come too late. By then, harrowing stories from the Sacramento Bee and Huffington Post described overwhelmed first responders unable to send help in time. Many were confined to their houses due to physical abilities despite being advised to evacuate and call for help, forgotten by their neighbors.

The disabled should not have to rely on Good Samaritans, but there were striking stories of heroism. An elderly woman who was nearly unable to evacuate was saved by a driver who saw her struggling for air in traffic. He helped swap out her air tank, allowing her to make it to a shelter safely.

Shelters, however, do not mean security for those with disabilities. The Los Angeles Times reported that Red Cross shelters frantically hunted for batteries, portable access showers, and mobility accessories in the days after the fire; some took several days after arrival to perform an assessment, while others couldn’t obtain the necessary supplies until days later.

The Pomona Center for Disability Issues and the Health Professions noted that “most disaster response systems are designed for people who can: walk, run, see, drive, read, hear, speak and quickly understand, and respond to instructions and alerts.” If we want to minimize death rates, we must incorporate those with disabilities into the conversation about evacuation and communication.

This is intuitive for Hector Ramirez, a board member of Disability Rights California.

In his interview with the Huffington Post, he emphasized inviting members of the disabled community to discuss evacuation plans and communication, arguing that if they didn’t, much of the efforts would fall short. Ramirez also reminded readers to communicate with their disabled community members and coordinate emergency response plans.

Until inclusion becomes the norm, danger is endemic.  


-Gabriella Staykova