We are living in the era of climate change—and with it comes disaster: hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, and wildfires. Our ability to cope with and recover from hurricanes and wildfires doesn’t just involve practical considerations, but ethical as well—who gets our resources and where do we put our resources?
California is one state that is asking these for a specific population: people with disabilities and other health needs. What’s being done to consider these folks before, during, and after a disaster?
Lisa Herron from UC Berkeley’s Department of City Planning and Public Health talks to people in her home state of California about inclusive emergency management.
LISA HERRON: Climate change is here to stay.
REPORTER: [in a helicopter reporting on Hurricane Michael]
LISA: Hurricanes batter the Southeast. Wildfires are year-round in California and Western states.
REPORTER: It’s the largest fire in California history.
LISA: Heat waves like we’ve never seen.
REPORTER: 2017 was the second-hottest year on record.
LISA: While they don’t discriminate in geography, their impacts are often unequal. Consider Hurricane Katrina, an example of disparate devastation.
Vance Taylor from California’s Office of Emergency Services.
VANCE TAYLOR: 70 percent of everyone that perished had an access or functional need even though they only comprised about 15 percent of the population.
LISA: My jaw dropped at this statistic. 70 percent of the people that died fell into a category that only made up only 15 percent of the population. Not just because it’s staggering; because it’s personal.
I fall into the category of what Vance calls access and functional needs, and the chances are you or someone you know does too.
VANCE: And so, you had to look at this injustice, and you had to look and ask why.
LISA: Like Vance, I needed to know why. I have a chronic disease, and I have a disability. Why is it that people like me, who make up a large part of the population, are more likely to die during a disaster?
Part of the answer lies in historical and present day discrimination. Alex Ghenis is a policy analyst at the World Institute on Disability in Berkeley, California.
ALEX GHENIS: In times of stress, people with disabilities and people that are on social services are often kind of vilified and thrown aside because they’re viewed as too costly to take care of and even like leeches on the system and other people’s hard work.
LISA: During disasters, this view can mean the difference between life and death for people with disabilities.
How do you make a case against an attitude like that?
ALEX: I do think that compassion is going to be a part of that. You have to have compassion and morality for people that can’t go live in the woods or need extra help in these extra times of stresses. And you know, it’s going to take a lot of planning and engagement to support this population. It’s the reality.
LISA: Compassion: a radical concept in these times. Adrien Weibgen, a lawyer for the Urban Justice Center in New York City, writes about what she calls “the right to be rescued.”
ADRIEN WEIBGEN: The right to be rescued refers to the idea that people with disabilities have a right equal to that of people without disabilities to receive emergency services.
LISA: The right to be rescued stems from two pieces of civil rights legislation: the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Both are designed to protect against discrimination.
In Los Angeles, a lawsuit was brought by Independent Living Centers against the city. Here’s Vance Taylor again.
VANCE: There was a lawsuit because they had not integrated people with disabilities into the emergency plan. And the county and the city were sued, and they lost. And when that gavel dropped, they had a choice: they could either go kicking and screaming to try and make the changes and meet the bare minimum legal requirements associated with that decision, or they could use it as a springboard.
LISA: And for the most part, Los Angeles and the rest of California chose springboard and now lead the way for what is called Disability Integration in Emergency Management.
[bright, pensive ambient music]
There’s a whole host of considerations.
Are there ASL interpreters for all emergency updates?
Are there backup para-transit options for people in cities?
Do emergency shelters have curb cuts, ramps, accessible showers and cots? In California, they do.
VANCE: Which means they’ve got a better shot today at being safe and secure and healthy and maintaining their independence and dignity than at any other time in history. But that’s unique to California. What we do essentially creates a blueprint, and that blueprint can be followed and emulated and adjusted accordingly for scope and scale.
[background music with heavy bass]
LISA: California’s blueprint isn’t just about survival. It’s about inclusion of and dignity for people with disabilities. As a Californian with a chronic disease and a disability, I’m thankful.
[music turns bright and upbeat]
Next time, we’ll hear more about what that blueprint looks like from people on the frontlines of disaster recovery in the Bay Area and beyond.
For North Gate Radio, I’m Lisa Herron.
[music fades slowly, leaving a light, rippling wave of sound]
REPORTER: Lisa Herron
MUSIC AND CREDITS: YouTube Music Library, Icarus, Rooted in Rights