Today’s Solutions: March 03, 2024

Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, the Alliance Center for Independence (ACI) in Edison, New Jersey, responded to the dismal truth that emergency shelters were often inaccessible to individuals with disabilities, resulting in fatal outcomes. Carole Tonks, ACI’s executive director, remembers the devastating consequences: “When Sandy hit, so many people with disabilities died in their apartments because shelters weren’t accessible.”

Finding critical gaps

During Hurricane Sandy, stories of frightening instances arose, ranging from wheelchair users stuck in rising water to persons who felt uncomfortable seeking shelter due to previous inaccessible experiences. ACI pioneered a proactive approach to filling these gaps, understanding that waiting for calamities to hit was no longer an option.

The answer was a one-of-a-kind shelter simulation exercise in which community members with disabilities and disaster management professionals worked together. “We brought together local disabled people and emergency management professionals for an overnight shelter simulation exercise,” said Tonks. The goal? To immerse both groups in the shelter experience, fostering mutual learning.

Exclusion from emergency planning

Excluding people with disabilities from emergency planning exacerbates the problem. Despite federal attempts such as FEMA‘s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, individuals with disabilities continue to be underrepresented in official emergency spaces. This marginalization translates into insufficient care during disasters, yielding startling statistics: those with disabilities are two to four times more likely to face fatal outcomes during crises.

“Disabled people should be involved in emergency management conversations,” says Tonks. Their presence contributes vital insight based on lived experiences, filling critical gaps created by the law and basic accessibility guidelines.

Above and beyond the minimum access requirements

While guidelines exist for basic access, gaps remain. Lawsuits, such as those filed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, cast light on unmet basic needs, such as inadequate signs for the visually impaired and inaccessible ramps. ACI’s deputy director, Luke Koppisch, underlines a bigger issue: a lack of training among staff and volunteers, which leads to dismissive attitudes toward disabled individuals seeking shelter.

A comprehensive approach

Tonks and Koppisch call for a more comprehensive strategy, highlighting the necessity of safe spaces and post-disaster support services. ACI’s shelter simulations aim to produce comprehensive recommendations and highlight the need to include people with disabilities in planning processes.

The impact of simulation exercises

These simulations, which began nearly a decade ago, have grown into a model that has been adopted by several New Jersey counties. Collaboration with emergency management agencies has resulted in dramatic results. Joseph Geleta, director of emergency management at the New Jersey Department of Human Services, underscores the benefits: “We identified different resources that we can keep in stock when we activate our shelters to make sure everyone’s welcome and taken care of.”

Future directions 

Participating counties, such as Burlington, attest to the effectiveness of the simulations in broadening perspectives. An emergency management coordinator, Phyllis Worrell, emphasizes the diverse nature of accommodation needs, from language interpretation to dealing with acute medical needs.

ACI’s strategy includes roundtable conversations during simulations, allowing people with disabilities to express their shelter needs. These conversations form the foundation for rules promoting inclusivity in temporary housing.

These simulations have a significant impact, as indicated by survey findings showing enhanced preparedness among participants. Geleta envisions this approach as a national standard, highlighting its importance in identifying critical components for effective emergency plans ahead of time.

Finally, ACI’s pioneering work in developing reproducible shelter simulations highlight the vital necessity for inclusive disaster response. These efforts attempt to ensure that no one is left behind during times of crises by focusing on true teamwork.

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