As recent events have demonstrated, natural disasters can have a particularly devastating—and, in many cases, lethal—impact on the disability community. Despite the best efforts of the US Civil Rights Divisons, this country is arguably no more prepared to meet the needs of residents with disabilities during a disaster than it was during Hurricane Katrina nearly six years ago.
In the aftermath of Katrina, Benilda Caixeta, a quadriplegic resident of New Orleans, tried for two days to seek refuge at the local Superdome. Despite repeated phone calls to authorities, she was found dead in her apartment, floating next to her wheelchair. No one had come to her aid.
Though a definitive number of people with disabilities killed by Hurricane Katrina remains unknown, a 2006 White House report revealed that 71 percent of the storm’s 1,330 victims were more than 60 years of age. This data suggests people who needed special care suffered disproportionately in a time of crisis.
In February 2011, a Los Angeles federal court reached a landmark decision that carried national implications: the City of Los Angeles was found to have violated federal law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), by failing to meet the needs of residents with disabilities in planning for natural and other disasters. This recent ruling is the first such decision in the United States.
The lawsuit—Communities Actively Living Independent and Free and Audrey Harthorn vs. the City Of Los Angeles and the County Of Los Angeles—determined the city violated the rights of people with disabilities, provided under the ADA and other federal and state laws, by failing to incorporate the needs of people with disabilities into the city’s disaster preparedness planning. The Disability Rights Legal Center (DRLC) represented the plaintiff during the legal process.
“The city’s practice of failing to address the needs of individuals with disabilities discriminates against such individuals by denying them meaningful access to the city’s emergency preparedness program,” Judge Consuelo B. Marshall determined in her ruling. “Because of the city’s failure to address its citizens’ unique needs, individuals with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to harm in the event of an emergency or disaster.”
Although Los Angeles has been no stranger to serious natural disasters—including a major earthquake in 1994, and wildfires in 2008 and 2009—the city still lacks adequate disaster planning for people with disabilities. Accessible emergency shelters, plans for providing services and medication at shelters, accessible transportation and evacuation assistance, as well as communication services that are available and accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities are minimal or entirely absent.
A recent series of disasters, including a tsunami in Japan and tornados and flooding across the Midwestern and Southern United States, underscores the need for better emergency preparation. During Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many people with disabilities, including a number of seriously ill seniors, were left to die because of a lack of planning for their emergency care.
These and other such tragedies prompted the February lawsuit, a legal effort to make future natural disasters less hazardous for people with disabilities. Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, hopes that February’s federal ruling prompts other cities, counties and states to examine their own levels of emergency preparedness and avoid or mitigate loss of life among their populations.
“Benilda need not have drowned,” Roth told the US House of Representatives Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus in 2005, after she had personally placed calls to prompt the New Orleans woman’s evacuation during Katrina. “People with disabilities are not in good hands.”
by Paula Pearlman
Paula Pearlman is the executive director of the Disability Rights
Legal Center, and a visiting associate professor of law at
Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.