by Paul Timmons, Founder of Portlight Strategies and Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies.
California is experiencing historic wildfires — again. Oregon is facing its worst wildfire season ever and it seems as if the whole West is ablaze. Gulf states are getting hammered by hurricanes, as usual, and both wildfire and hurricane season aren’t near over. Oh and yes, we are also still muddling through a global pandemic. Our nation has more deaths from COVID-19 than any other country in our class and we haven’t yet begun to calculate the damage to our communities and our institutions.
Meanwhile, climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen — it’s here. Scientists have told us for years that these cataclysmic events were going to ramp up and get worse, and even though we’ve known it was coming for decades, we are largely unprepared and surprised that it’s as bad as it is.
I’ve been working on emergency preparedness for 20 years and it is pretty clear that not much has changed — for people with disabilities or for anyone else. We continue to see the same issues come up time and time again Shelters are still not all accessible, services are still not accessible, and people in nursing homes continue to die in disproportionate numbers. While there are efforts being made for greater inclusion in emergency preparedness, the needle is not moving.
We’ve Got to Do Something Different
In my 20 years of involvement, the closest we got to effectively managing disaster preparedness for disabled people was when we began forging partnerships with Red Cross and FEMA as well as state and local government entities. This is sort of a no brainer — after all, when you get down to it, when these big events happen, those affected want national resources and supports but will also most depend on their local sheriff, their church, and their neighbors.
We generated a lot of vocal support and promises, but continually seeing people with disabilities left behind, underserved or downright ignored during flood, fire and hurricane makes me wonder if most of that was show. Real inclusive emergency planning and engagement should have substance and produce lasting tangible results – which I have not seen yet.
And here is an uncomfortable, painful truth: Until we can find a lasting solution that includes the needs of people with disabilities in a way that is understood by first responders, emergency management professionals and volunteer orgs, people will continue to suffer and die.
Some good work has been done. We’ve pulled together Getting It Right conferences and other training mechanisms in an effort to give everyone involved as much information as possible. Advocates like Valerie Novack, German Parodi, Shaelyn Sluzalis, Vance Taylor and Christina Mills are all emerging as leaders in the inclusive emergency preparedness space and my hope is that they will have some success that we have not heretofore seen. At times it seems as if we have breakthroughs, like when we hammered out a Memorandum of Understanding with the Red Cross and leading disability organizations. The information and know-how to better assist people with disabilities is out there — but somehow, the job just isn’t getting done.
Micro-Local May be the Way to Go
For years we’ve seen all sorts of efforts by advocates around FEMA and the Red Cross at the national level that try to coordinate with the local level to create inclusive preparedness. The results have been mixed to say the least, but then along comes COVID-19 to bring what I think is the answer. What if the solution to the most effective disaster relief for everyone, including people with disabilities, lies at the most micro-local level possible? What if the key players aren’t national coordinators but the volunteers at neighborhood faith communities who pass out meals? After all, that is where the most effective relief is delivered when disasters like the pandemic or hurricanes or fires hit.
Hurricane Laura was a horrible, devastating storm that did tremendous damage and yet I bet you haven’t heard much about it. Some of that is because of disaster fatigue. We get so spun up over every disaster that we’re tired of It — and because the climate has changed, disasters are now everyday problems, not special events. This often leads to state and local response being your only option for supports especially if a national effort is not motivated to send disaster relief or support.
What we have been doing, even at its best, even at its most engaged, just can’t work at the level we need it to. Maybe the problem is we’re going for a bird’s-eye view of policy when what we need are policies that reflect what actually happens on the ground.
We should build a model of mutual aid around these local efforts.
We need to work through local faith communities, Kiwanis clubs, maybe even your local book club. We don’t need to create some new thing. We need to figure out how to support the networks we have. People of color and people with disabilities should not die at higher numbers, but be seen as important members of their communities who are worthy of response and recovery. The big national groups should exist to support the little local groups who know the lay of the land and who to call. Doing this will also allow us to be equitable and nondiscriminatory about any models we develop. Until we use plans and processes that make all things equal, we will continue to leave people behind in times of duress.
Let’s redesign emergency preparedness from the ground up to be inclusive of everyone.
Paul Timmons is Retired 30 year veteran in the field of disaster response and emergency management. As the Founder of Portlight Strategies and Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies. he has extensive experience in emergency management and disaster relief for individuals with disabilities.