Lessons from Sandy: People with Disabilities and Emergency Preparation

Emergency-plan-web“Superstorm Sandy was not a catastrophic event,” James Flemming, the regional disability integration specialist for FEMA Region II, asserted at a panel discussion on emergency management for people with disabilities during a preparedness workshop at the Ted Weiss Federal Building in lower Manhattan on August 12.

Before Sandy hit the New Jersey coastline on October, 27, 2012, it had been downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane (down from Category 3, with 115 mph winds at its strongest) and was losing strength. Nevertheless, as anyone who lived through it will recall, Sandy was freakishly large. It stretched the length of the Atlantic Seaboard from Florida to Maine and caused the storm surges of almost 14 feet on the East River and the South Shore of Long Island that did most of the $19 billion in damage in New York City alone.

Flemming’s point was that as bad as Sandy was, it could have been worse. One might even want to bet that it will be worse; it’s just a matter of time. And so Flemming and his panelists from disability organizations and offices in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey returned repeatedly to the theme of the larger FEMA workshop of which the panel was part: communities need to collaborate and prepare now before it is too late. It will be especially important for New York City’s various components—government, nonprofit and faith-based philanthropies, and the private sector— to collaborate on learning from the mistakes of the Sandy disaster so that its 890,000 residents with disabilities will be able to ride out the storm with minimal harm.

Mapping the Danger

The federal government has a role to play in the effort.  One area where FEMA is leading the charge is in mapping regions to get a clearer picture of where people with disabilities are concentrated. Madeleine Goldfarb of FEMA’s New Jersey Sandy Recovery Office shared slides showing four maps the agency has developed for the state based on census data, showing breakdowns of people with disabilities in counties and municipalities both in percentages and total populations. Both filters are important, but either by itself won’t tell the story, she said. For example, Ocean County has the highest percentage of people with disabilities in the state with almost 13%, which amounts to 22,000 people, mostly concentrated around the retirement community of Cape May. By contrast, Essex County’s population with disabilities is only 9.2% of the whole, but they number almost 100,000.

“The data is not perfect,” Goldfarb cautioned, “but it is a start.” As more and better data are collected in time, emergency managers will be able to get as “granular” as they need to to locate people with functional and access needs and get them the resources they need to protect themselves or recover    from disaster.

Lourdes Cabrera-Zenk, emergency management program specialist of FEMA’s Region II Caribbean Area Division, outlined what many of those needs are. In addition to the “go-kit” every person should keep prepared for an emergency, Cabrera-Zenk said, people with disabilities should take responsibility for the extras that others won’t think of for them:

  • prescriptions
  • medical supplies
  • special foods
  • food for service animals
  • documents and identification
  • key contacts, such as doctors, aides and paraprofessionals, as well as family

“The goal is to maximize self-sufficiency during an emergency,” Cabrera-Zenk said, and that begins with preparation for it.

NYC Prepares Harder

Special Needs Coordinator Eli Fresquez of New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM), spoke to measures his office is taking in collaboration with other agencies to improve the city’s responsiveness to the functional and access needs of people with disabilities in emergencies. He said there are four areas of focus in this effort: planning and preparation of needed services (including, for example, medical access and transportation); coordination of the response among agencies; information and education, not only for people at risk but also first responders; and the city’s geographic information system (GIS), which, similar to the mapping FEMA is working on, can be used to pinpoint vulnerable populations in the city before and after disaster strikes.

Many high-functioning people with disabilities, like many people in general, are capable of sheltering in place. In case of mandatory evacuations of low-lying areas most vulnerable during a storm surge, however, they may need to go to one of two types of city shelter. Acknowledging a weak spot in the city’s preparedness for Sandy, Fresquez said that almost all of the shelters are now wheelchair accessible.  Some people with disabilities, however, will want to go to special medical shelters, of which there will be at least one in each borough. There, according to Fresquez, they will have access to durable medical equipment and other supplies as well as to medical professionals.

Fresquez said OEM is also working on plans to improve the transportation necessary for moving people with disabilities to safety and on communications when an emergency plan is in place. Notify NYC is a three-year-old emergency alert system that sends out phone calls and texts to subscribers. A new service OEM provides is the Advance Warning System specifically for people with special needs.

NYCHA Pitches In

A late addition to the panel, Jenny Roman, project manager at NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA), is heading an effort to identify residents of public housing with disabilities in order to target them for special assistance in case of emergencies.  Some 17,000 families live in Hurricane Evacuation Zone 1, the coastal areas of the city where Sandy wrought so much damage.  A census-type section has been added to residents’ annual recertification form, which determines eligibility to live in public housing. One drawback to the plan: it relies on self-disclosure, which means public housing residents with disabilities have to volunteer the information, something that, for whatever reason, they may not wish to do.

The good news is that since Sandy, some 50,000 residents have self-identified as persons with disabilities. Echoing her colleague Cabrera-Zenk, Roman said that collaborating in this way with NYCHA to pro-actively protect themselves in future emergencies, the residents affirm the “philosophy of being self-sufficient.”

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  1. […] The meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities in emergency planning. A federal court ordered New York City to improve emergency preparedness for people with disabilities; the City agreed, but much more needs to be done. […]

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