Disabled urged to form disaster plans
Recent report indicates only 5 percent of states and 4 percent of cities have adequately addressed emergency planning for the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled
By Alan Johnson
The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
Copyright 2007 The Columbus Dispatch
All Rights Reserved
On the day terrorists struck the World Trade Center, blind workers in a nearby office building carried out the disaster plan they had rehearsed and led sighted colleagues to safety in an evacuation.
"Follow the blind people," a sighted worker said on Sept. 11, 2001. "They know where they're going."
In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast, two New Orleans-area assisted-living centers for the mentally retarded carried out well-practiced evacuation plans. All the residents, staff members and the staff's families got out safely; hundreds of others didn't.
But those are the exceptions rather than the rule in emergency-preparedness for people with physical and mental disabilities.
A recent review by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found that just 5 percent of states and 4 percent of cities have adequately addressed emergency planning for the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled.
That's a significant population: About 54 million Americans are disabled to some extent — and that doesn't include those in nursing homes and other care facilities.
The federal government has spent billions on homeland security but little on emergency planning for the disabled, said Hilary Styron of the National Organization on Disability. Styron is a national expert on emergency planning for the disabled.
The National Organization on Disability, founded in 1981, is a nonprofit group that acts as an advocate for and helps educate the disabled.
The organization received a federal grant of about $1 million to research emergency issues.
The agency sent four teams to Louisiana and Mississippi immediately after Katrina hit in 2005. Styron said the teams found that it was "a massive disaster for everyone, but especially for the disabled, because plans were not in place."
The federal Katrina Reform Act created a disabilities coordinator for emergency management. But there was no money for the post, leaving it an unfunded mandate, she said.
In emergencies, the disabled should not assume they will be rescued, Styron said. They must make their own plans.
"You've got to look into the mirror and get real," she said. "When a disaster happens, and you don't have electricity, and the social-services personnel you go to every day aren't there, there's a huge burden of personal responsibility. The government's not going to do this."
Nevertheless, the government must take a lead role, and so far that hasn't happened, she said.
Brad Schwartz, state planner for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, said that first-responders — local fire, police and other agencies — are well-prepared to deal with assisting the disabled.
The state's annual update of emergency planning, including new provisions dealing with the disabled, will be on its way to Gov. Ted Strickland by the end of this month.
"I always say there isn't anything Mother Nature can throw at us that we can't manage," Schwartz said.
Jed Morrison, superintendent of the Franklin County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, said his agency does a great deal of planning for emergencies ranging from national disasters to local fires.
The board operates schools, workshops and early-childhood education programs.
"We recognize that situations are always different and you don't know exactly what the emergency is. It certainly helps to have a plan to guide you through any emergency.
"But as much as you do, there's always that situation you don't anticipate," Morrison said.
The agency has regular fire and tornado drills, as well as dry-run responses to power failures and a lockdown in case of problems inside schools.
The agency is planning for an outbreak of bird flu and recently purchased masks and gloves. Each facility has a first-aid clinic, Morrison said.
In emergencies, Morrison advises clients to make plans to go to family homes or a community shelter if appropriate.
The board has another resource that might be available to the larger community: 200 wheelchair-accessible buses and other vehicles.
Box Story: What to do
Homeland Security emergency recommendations for the disabled:
* Create a support network to help in an emergency.
* Tell support people where you keep your emergency supplies.
* Give a member of your support network a key to your house or apartment.
* Contact your city or county government's emergency information-management office. Many local offices keep lists of disabled residents so they can be located quickly in an emergency.
* Wear medical-alert tags or bracelets to identify your disability.
* If you are dependent on dialysis or other life-sustaining treatment, know the location and availability of more than one facility.
* Show others how to operate your wheelchair.
* Know the size and weight of your wheelchair, in addition to whether it is collapsible, in case it has to be transported.
* Stock additional supplies of prescription medicines and make lists of medications -- including dosages -- and of any allergies.
* Stock extra eyeglasses, hearing-aid batteries and wheelchair batteries and an extra supply of oxygen.
* Keep a list of the style and serial number of medical devices.
* Keep your medical insurance and Medicare cards accessible.
* Make a list of doctors, relatives or friends who should be notified if you are hurt.