Despite her numerous calls for evacuation assistance, quadriplegic Benilda Caixeta was trapped in her New Orleans home when Hurricane Katrina hit. Marcie Roth, the woman who one day would become FEMA senior advisor on disability issues, comforted Benilda by telephone for hours through the storm only to hear tragedy unfold as flood waters rushed in and took Benilda’s life. Suddenly, the phone line went silent.
“There had been only minimal pre-planning for a person who uses a wheelchair to be evacuated during an emergency,” said Roth, keynote speaker at the July 12-15 international conference on Rebuilding Sustainable Communities with the Elderly and Disabled People after Disasters, sponsored by UMass Boston’s Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters (CRSCAD).
“Knowing that this death and countless other unnecessary tragedies could have been averted is why I came to FEMA, and why we are working so hard to implement comprehensive strategies for inclusive emergency planning,” said Roth, who noted that the segment of the population requiring additional assistance extends far beyond the 20 percent of the population said to be disabled and includes elders, young children, women in the last stages of pregnancy, and people who are temporarily disabled.
“We need to get away from thinking about this as special. It’s no longer special. It’s part of what we do,” said Roth, who added that including people with disabilities in preparedness is a necessary step, echoing the words of UMass Boston Professor of Gerontology Nina Silverstein, who said during her conference welcome that older adults and people with disabilities are “not just people who need help; they are people who can contribute.”
Inclusive planning, said Roth, is necessary to address issues that arise during and after disasters. Citing FEMA director Craig Fugate, she said that the agency now plans for “real” rather than planning for “easy.”
Planning for “real” requires a sense of what real is. Co-keynote speaker and newly-appointed FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino, who earned his emergency response credentials as chief of Boston Emergency Medical Services and assistant director of Boston Public Health, says he supports the agency’s commitment to inclusive planning.
“They’re building a team in D.C. of people from a first-responder background, people who have ‘been there, done that,’” said Serino. “FEMA is now poised to make sure the people on the ground have the tools they need to do the job.”
For too long, Serino stated, the public was perceived as a liability, mouths to feed rather than members of a team.
“It’s important not to call people victims. Those are the people we lose. Others are survivors,” said Serino. “The first person on the scene, whether house fire or flood, is usually a bystander. It’s neighbor helping neighbor.”
Conference speaker Scott Graham, member of the Red Cross National Headquarters Team noted an instance of a 9-year-old girl who went next door to help an elderly neighbor evacuate from their burning apartment building in the Bronx.
“This is not just theory. This is not just a good idea. This is life and death," Graham said. "We’ve got to take care of our neighbors. It’s a very fundamental thing. Resiliency starts with preparedness. Let’s start today.”
Graham urged participants to encourage people to put together a “Go Kit," a personal preparedness bag that includes necessities such as food, water, blankets, cell phone chargers, flashlights, batteries, family contact numbers, prescriptions, and prescription information.
“Sometimes we think we’re going to scare people with preparedness information, but really, it’s about empowering them,” said Serino. “Citizens with disabilities are included as valued members of the team. There is a disability coordinator in each of our 10 regions to facilitate that. We have to plan for the whole community.”
Planning for—and including—the whole community translates necessarily into a change of perspective.
“Before, if an individual who uses a wheelchair could not access a shelter, we would have said that they could not access the shelter because they have a disability,” said Kate McCarthy-Barnett from the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Emergency Preparedness and Response. “Today, we say that we did not plan effectively.”
Scheduled two weeks before the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the conference comprised seven panels spanning four days, featuring over 60 speakers from around the world, including UMass Boston Associate Professor of Sociology Kenneth Lachlan and Gerontology graduate student Janet Popp, who won recognition for her paper advocating for fall prevention measures during post-disaster reconstruction. Popp was one of five winners (from Austria, Brazil, Canada, and USA) of the international student essay competition on the theme of the conference.
“The Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters is very pleased with the successful outcome of the conference,” said CRSCAD’s director, Adenrele Awotona. “The six keynote speeches (including the ones by Richard Serino, the FEMA Deputy Administrator; Marcie Roth, the Director of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination at FEMA; and Mr. D. Napoleon, the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment in the Government of India) as well as the presentations by the various international panelists provided a comprehensive and stimulating analysis of the needs of the elderly and disabled people in different regions of the world."
“They also examined the programs and other resources available to help in building sustainable communities that are inclusive locally in Africa, Asia, North and South America, and Europe,” Awotona continued. “All the presenters expressed the view that disasters are an opening to new paths, and that in order for the needs of vulnerable members of the community to be met, they must be integrated into comprehensive local, national, and international plans for Disaster Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and long-term Reconstruction. Furthermore, the presentations by the five winners (from Austria, Brazil, Canada and USA) of the international student essay competition on the theme of the conference were a major contribution to the successful outcome of the event.”
To learn more about UMass Boston’s Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters, go to www.umb.edu/crscad.