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Responding to Disaster: Lessons From Louisiana's Disability Services System

By Kathy Kliebert

On August 27, 2005 as Hurricane Katrina threatened the southeastern coast of Louisiana, developmental disability service providers felt prepared for the storm and began implementing evacuation plans. Less than a month later, Hurricane Rita hit the southwestern coast. Our developmental disabilities agencies had significant experience and practice in hurricane evacuation and had disaster plans that were considered comprehensive and effective. These plans included detailed procedures regarding staff responses and multiple assurances for health and safety of people receiving services. What neither the developmental disabilities services system, nor most of Louisiana’s citizens, were prepared for was the aftermath of the two storms.

After the Hurricanes

Following the storms, communication from almost every source failed, making it virtually impossible for people to connect to their family members and the outside world. Important information that needed to be dispersed to people with disabilities, their families, providers and others could not be relayed. Support coordinators could not get in touch with participants; participants could not get in touch with providers. Agencies did not have adequate tracking systems to ascertain the current location of people. People who went to shelters often moved to other locations before we were able to assess, take action, and track these subsequent moves. The lack of available communication and the inability to track and coordinate program participants, providers, and staff significantly impaired the ability to reconnect people to the supports and services they needed. Almost a week after the initial hurricane, we were still unable to locate over 75% of people receiving waiver services and 50% of those receiving ICF/DD services. Four months later, we still had not accurately identified locations of 13% of waiver participants.

People who were not receiving services or who had limited family support struggled both in the evacuation process and in the aftermath. Transportation for people with physical disabilities was severely lacking, resulting in people remaining in homes with tragic consequences. People without identification were transported to unknown destinations; many were unable to provide information to assist with their identification and service provision. People were transported without necessary medical supplies and adaptive equipment. People were placed in nursing homes because of the lack of more appropriate shelter. Efforts to move people out of shelters were stymied by expensive or unavailable housing. Accessible housing was no longer an option. Over 20 months later, we still have people with developmental disabilities living in other states who desperately want to return to Louisiana; however, they are unable to obtain housing. No agency or system in Louisiana was prepared for the enormity of the disaster and our ability to respond was often slow and frustrating.

The State Agency Response

At the Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities the challenges we faced in responding to these storms were overwhelming. First, we quickly recognized our essential functions during this disaster were very different from our traditional ones, and entirely new roles were established for almost every employee in our office. Our staff’s efforts became focused on the following:

My personal efforts were focused on directing these activities, as well as working with our Medicaid bureau and coordinating with federal agencies on emergency rules, policy exceptions, and other administrative tasks to ensure people could continue to receive services and providers could continue to be paid for services. The disaster made it impossible to follow previously established rules, and exceptions were made on almost a daily basis. Louisiana is fortunate that the Medicaid agency is in the same department as our agency, so we were able to work collaboratively to devise creative solutions to assure access to care and the continuity of services. No statewide disability service system had ever been faced with such extensive dispersion of people, loss of direct support staff, extended shelter stays, loss of infrastructure, nonfunctional communication, extended evacuations, and loss of providers and housing.

What We’ve Learned

The experiences of Katrina and Rita taught us that we must have a comprehensive disaster response system that can address each of the realities listed above. We recognized that there are at least seven essential components of this comprehensive response:

This list is not all-inclusive; it is just an overview of those elements we found critical based on our experiences.


It is important to note that this article does not refer to the damaging winds or extensive flooding that were part of this particular disaster. Louisiana’s disaster really occurred because of the destruction of infrastructure. Such destruction could happen anywhere and from a number of causes. Our developmental disabilities services system sustained significant impact, and we are working to rebuild it and improve our disaster response, in the midst of a long-term care reform effort. While these challenges seem overwhelming, Louisiana is fortunate to have a committed group of stakeholders that includes public and private providers, self-advocates, advocacy groups, and dedicated state employees. We know that they can be relied on to work with us to not only rebuild our system, but also to make it stronger and more responsive to people.

Kathy Kliebert is Assistant Secretary of the Office for Citizens with Developmental Disabilities, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She may be reached at 225/342-0095 or


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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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