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Including People with Disabilities in Emergency Planning: How Are We Doing?

By Hilary Styron

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita left more than 1,300 dead in their wake, caused more than $80 billion in damage over 90,000 square miles, and forced mass evacuations from five states along the Gulf Coast. An estimated 600,000 households were displaced from affected areas and 50,000-100,000 remained in temporary housing six months later. As a result, 44 states and the District of Columbia received millions of evacuees, providing them with care and shelter over an extended period. These events tested the nation’s ability to respond to catastrophic events and demonstrated the importance of ensuring the effectiveness of federal, state, and local plans and the ability to quickly synchronize intergovernmental efforts.

Launching a Nationwide Review

Following Hurricane Katrina, the National Organization on Disability (N.O.D.) Emergency Preparedness Initiative (EPI) deployed four Special Needs Assessment 4 Katrina Evacuees (SNAKE) teams into the Gulf region to evaluate conditions for people with disabilities in mass care settings. Our teams witnessed first-hand the human crisis unfolding for all persons impacted by the storm, and reported real-time information specifically related to people with disabilities to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials.1 The SNAKE teams returned to Washington, D.C. on September 14, 2005, and the following day President Bush asked the DHS to conduct a review, in cooperation with local counterparts, of emergency plans in every major city in America. In response to President Bush’s call for a nationwide plan review, Secretary Michael Chertoff further ordered that reviews include a rigorous examination of how communities plan to prepare, inform, evacuate and care for people with disabilities. As part of that effort, the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) led a team of subject-matter experts who used a detailed assessment tool specifically designed for the purpose of assessing the level to which states and urban areas are taking actions to address requirements associated with integrating people with disabilities into the emergency planning process.

In addition to these efforts, on September 29, 2005, Congress, in the Conference Report on H.R. 2360, DHS Appropriations Act of 2006, indicated the importance of having plans in place to deal with catastrophic events and the need to include people with disabilities in emergency management planning. Congress emphasized that it is imperative that states and urban areas ensure sufficient resources are devoted to developing plans for the complete evacuation of all residents, including people in hospitals and nursing homes, and residents without access to transportation, in advance of and after such an event.

Nationwide Plan Review Findings

In June 2006, DHS and the U.S. Department of Transportation released the Nationwide Plan Review Phase 2 Report detailing the results of the review of urban and state emergency preparedness nationwide, including findings on emergency planning in relation to people with disabilities. The DHS review revealed major fragmentation, inconsistencies, and critical gaps throughout the plans. Few plans demonstrated in-depth planning and proactive thinking in preparing to meet the needs of people with disabilities before, during, and after emergencies. Most plans delegated critical responsibilities to third parties or other governmental entities without adequate coordination, oversight, or assurance of resources, and contained no indication that a delegated function would be executed in a timely and effective manner. More specifically, most plans failed to do the following:

The review revealed that across state and urban emergency plans, “disability” was inconsistently defined and often treated as a sub-group of the umbrella of “special needs,” “at-risk,” or “vulnerable populations.” The term “special needs” often referred to an extremely broad segment of the population, including people with disabilities, minority groups, people who do not speak English, children, and the elderly. In practice, the term also included people who live in poverty or on public assistance; people without private transportation or who rely on public transportation; people who rely on care-givers for assistance in daily living and would need similar assistance in an emergency; and people who live independently or with caregiver(s) in homes, assisted living housing, nursing homes, supervised group homes, hospitals, and other health care facilities. These groups obviously represent a large and complex variety of concerns and challenges in relation to emergency planning and response. In addition, few plans incorporated state or urban area disability demographics documenting the prevalence of persons with disabilities in their communities. And few plans recognized that the state and local governments have legal obligations to those residents under the Americans with Disabilities Act and other authorities.

In response to these shortfalls in emergency plans nationwide, the report presented recommendations, including the following (U.S. Department of Homeland Security & U.S. Department of Transportation, 2006):

As the findings illustrate, until emergency planners understand and address the prevalence and needs of persons with disabilities in their states and communities, as well as their commensurate federal civil rights obligations, inadequate preparation and implementation will continue to be the norm.

Additional Findings

As DHS and others have found, while most Emergency Operation Plans (EOPs) make scattered references to people with disabilities, sorely lacking is any consistency of approach, depth of planning, or evidence of safeguards and effective implementation. Most jurisdictions significantly underestimate the amount of advance planning and coordination that is required to effectively address the integration and accommodation of individuals with disabilities. A 2004 survey of emergency managers conducted by EPI revealed that 76% do not have a paid expert on staff to advise on special needs issues and 73% said that no funding had been received to address and plan for special needs issues (N.O.D. & Harris Interactive, 2004). The 2004 survey also revealed that 42% of emergency managers had preparedness materials for people with disabilities; however, only 16% of those 42% had those same educational materials available in an accessible format. In addition, SNAKE team findings revealed that 85.7% of community-based organizations that provided services to people with disabilities and seniors in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina did not know how to access their emergency management system prior to the storm.

Although strides are being made toward fully integrating people with disabilities in community life, substantial improvement is necessary to integrate people with disabilities in emergency planning and readiness.

Principles for Improvement

To increase the effectiveness of emergency preparedness in relation to persons with disabilities, individuals who have disabilities, their families, service providers, and advocates, as well as their communities as a whole and government leaders at all levels, must recognize and act upon the following principles:

Some recommendations for implementing these principles include:


One of the most important roles of government is to protect its citizenry from harm, including helping people prepare for and respond to emergencies. Making local, state, and federal government emergency preparedness and response programs accessible to people with disabilities is a critical part of this responsibility. People with disabilities throughout the country will continue to risk suffering and death in disproportionate numbers unless we dramatically improve disability-related emergency planning processes and readiness.


1 Special Needs Assessment 4 Katrina Evacuee (SNAKE) Report and findings are available at

2 The NRP/NIMS is currently under review and special needs are being fully incorporated into these guidance documents.

3 The Federal Communications Commission has established the Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee (CMSAAC) to address these issues (


National Organization on Disability (N.O.D.) & Harris Interactive (November 30, 2004). Emergency preparedness survey: Final report. Washington, D.C.: N.O.D. Retrieved July 25, 2007 from

U.S. Department of Homeland Security & U.S. Department of Transportation (June 16, 2006). Nationwide plan review phase 2 report. Available at

Hilary Styron is Director of the Emergency Preparedness Initiative of the National Organization on Disability, Washington, D.C. She may be reached at 202/293-5960 or Additional information regarding the content of this article is available by visiting the EPI Web site at For specific information or to speak with someone about issues surrounding special needs preparedness planning in your community, please contact EPI at 202/293-5960.


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Retrieved from the Web site of the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota ( Citation: Moseley, C., Salmi, P., Johnstone, C. & Gaylord, V. (Eds.). (Spring/Summer 2007). Impact: Feature Issue on Disaster Preparedness and People with Disabilities, 20(1). [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration].

The PDF version of this Impact, with photos and graphics, is also online at

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