Were We Prepared?
The earthquake and hurricane that hit the East Coast over the last week have certainly wreaked havoc, although thankfully not as bad as the recent earthquake in Japan or Hurricane Katrina. But all of these natural disasters can remind us of an important issue--making sure our emergency management and response plans adequately meet the needs of people with disabilities--and provide a fitting opportunity to evaluate and improve those plans.
So far, no reports have emerged of people with disabilities being essentially stranded during last week's events because of inadequate emergency response plans. However, as a White House blog post noted in March, "for years the needs of people with disabilities were more of an afterthought during disasters. Not enough was done to make sure that shelters planned for the access and functional needs of individuals who might require wheelchairs to be replaced or beds at a certain height if it was necessary to evacuate during a disaster. Residents who were blind or deaf, and those with intellectual disabilities didn't have access to critical information about evacuation routes or other warnings. And in some cases, accessible transportation for people with disabilities just wasn't factored into planning at all."
This lack of preparedness became more evident after Hurricane Katrina. For example, one survey found that 45 percent of people who did not evacuate New Orleans before the storm hit listed "being physically unable to leave or having to care for someone who was physically unable to leave" as one of the reasons they stayed behind, with 12 percent listing it as the main reason they stayed behind. Since then, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has established an Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, which works closely with disability rights organizations to improve emergency preparedness and response plans.
Faith organizations have an important role to play in ensuring that their community's emergency preparedness and response plans are inclusive. One of the best resources out there for faith communities looking to get involved in this issue is New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS). Although NYDIS focuses on New York City, its training materials and fact sheets can advise faith organizations and religious leaders in any city or state.
As Jews, we are taught that every life is of infinite value; we must do what we can to save all lives during these natural disasters. Click here to learn more about the URJ's disaster relief efforts, and email Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, the RAC's Senior Advisor on Disability Issues, to learn more about emergency preparedness and response for people with disabilities.