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NED Newsletter: December 2017

Disability and Disasters: a Troubling Year

    Hello fellow travelers, researchers, advocates and allies – and welcome to WID’s New Earth Disability newsletter for December 2017! Since our last newsletter came out, it has been a very busy and intense time for natural disasters, and especially people with disabilities affected by those disasters. We hope that our community can come together to learn more, support each other, and prepare for a resilient and supportive future. Thank you for being part of this effort.

    Soon after our last newsletter, the NED team of Alex Ghenis and Marsha Saxton saw lessons from the disaster at California’s Oroville Dam, which almost collapsed in January and required a panicked evacuation of 200,000 people. The difficult effect on people with disabilities was drastic and later brought up in an event we attended, called Getting it Right, focusing on disaster response and disability (Getting it Right was hosted by Portlight and had nearly 200 attendees). Some people with disabilities were abandoned at home and unable to evacuate during the Oroville disaster, only saved when regulators gave the all-clear and the individuals’ family or caregivers returned. Others were displaced and struggled in shelters, then faced difficulty recovering after their support networks scattered in the following weeks. The stories were troubling and many are still ongoing.

    With the support of the California Department of Public Health, we hosted a July workshop around climate change and disability that focused on the Oroville Dam and other natural disasters, among other things. It was also filmed by a great filmmaker and friend, Alan Cash. Then, as we were working on editing the workshop video to put online, a series of disastrous storms hit United States. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas as a category 4, and then Irma reached category 5 strength in the Caribbean before hitting Florida as a category 3 storm. Finally, Hurricane Maria hit the US territory of Puerto Rico head-on and caused massive damage, which has yet to be addressed to any reasonable level. People with disabilities have been especially hard-hit through all of these disasters.*

    Climate change is projected to lead to stronger and more frequent extreme weather events including hurricanes, and this trio in August and September were just a sign of climate change’s impact – and a preview of what’s to come. As we were finishing up the video, it seemed that these storms were more connected to our work, and the aftermath in Puerto Rico has been the clearest disaster so far. With that in mind, we’ve changed up the newsletter itself to address that ongoing crisis. The video of our workshop is also up online, so now is the time for the newsletter to go out. Thanks for reading and caring about this issue.

    *These 3 hurricanes hit the Caribbean and Gulf coasts in August and September, but other climate disasters have happened recently as well. In California, dozens died in massive and fast-moving wildfires this October, including several people with disabilities who were unable to evacuate. We want to recognize the many climate-related disasters happening worldwide – and the many lives and livelihoods that have been lost. We hope there will be better disaster response well into the future.

Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico, and People with Disabilities

A satellite image of the large Hurricane Maria as it passes over Puerto Rico
A satellite image of Hurricane Maria as it passes over Puerto Rico

    On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island of Puerto Rico as a category 4 storm, packing maximum winds of 165 mph. Puerto Rico – which is a US territory, and whose residents are US citizens – had been partly affected by the category-5 Hurricane Irma just a few weeks earlier and was still troubled and in recovery. Maria’s impact, though, was devastating. Virtually the whole island’s power grid went out, and there was a shortage of fuel for vehicles and generators (it’s been estimated that power in many areas won’t be restored for 5 months or more). There were major shortages of basic supplies including food and clean water. A lack of communication left people stranded or desperate to find information about family members. Problems abound, and each had a large human impact including health consequences and long-lasting damage to the island’s infrastructure and economy. The recovery has clearly not been enough as well: far too few supplies have been sent over (which was made worse by the outdated Jones Act, which limited the amount of ships that could carry goods to Puerto Rico and had to be temporarily lifted, but only after some time had already passed). The federal government has not committed enough money in the short or long-term, especially compared to mainland states recovering from Harvey and Irma. (A $36.5 billion relief package for this year’s disasters was released more than one month after the storm hit, although only part of those funds will go to Puerto Rico). Now, even as we begin December, there is a continuing humanitarian crisis. Stories have come out of citizens drinking polluted water and struggling to get basic supplies, among other things. Infrastructure is still in shambles, and much of the island is still without power. These stories will only continue unless far more is done – and much, much faster than it is now.

    The entire population of Puerto Rico is still reeling from Maria over two months after the storm made landfall, but people with disabilities are having an especially difficult time. Nearly 1/3 of the island is still without power, which spells major trouble for people with electric medical equipment such as wheelchairs or ventilators. Oxygen and medication are in short supply, which is especially ironic because Puerto Rico is a major manufacturer of medications (and the shutdown of that industry may have nationwide impacts for people with medical conditions). A limited number of hospitals are up-and-running because of fuel shortages for generators and a lack of supplies. In the days and weeks immediately after the storm hit, some residents receiving dialysis had to be evacuated to the mainland, often by air. The problems persist – and unfortunately, hardly anything is being done to specifically address the needs of people with disabilities. As Maria is showing (just like Hurricane Katrina, Harvey, Irma and more), people with disabilities are hit the hardest by natural disasters, but are rarely supported to the level they need throughout a recovery. They are largely out of view, and sometimes they are forgotten in the public’s mind, and abandoned by government. Puerto Rico in general is not getting nearly enough support from the federal government – and when that’s combined with the abandonment of people with disabilities, it’s a double-hit that’s hard to take.
    This is all the more important because of the high rate of disability in Puerto Rico. According to the latest census data, 15.4% of Puerto Ricans under age 65 have some sort of a disability – nearly 2 times the national average of 8.6%, and a full 1% higher than West Virginia, the next-highest state. (Hawaii, another set of US islands, has the lowest rate at 6.5%). The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that approximately 41.3% of Puerto Ricans received Medicaid in 2014, compared to 17.3% of the greater US population. Meanwhile, the island’s economy was already in shambles even before this year’s storms hit, saddled by debt, unemployment and high prices of consumer goods – all of which disproportionately affect the well-being of the disability community. Long story short, Irma and Maria hit an island that already had a high rate of disability, with difficult conditions for residents with disabilities, and made their situations much, much worse.

Residents of Ponce, Puerto Rico, line up at an ATM in hopes of getting some cash. A woman with a walker is at the front of the line
Residents of Ponce, Puerto Rico, line up at an ATM in hopes of getting some cash
    Luckily, there are organizations at the national and international levels that are putting efforts into disaster relief and recovery for people with disabilities, and are directly supporting Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Portlight Disaster Strategies, a national disability-focused disaster relief nonprofit, is one of the main nonprofits supporting the disability community with supplies and advocacy. The organization has 3 staff members on the ground coordinating the delivery of water, medical supplies and other basic resources to Puerto Ricans with disabilities, especially those in extremely difficult situations. However, it’s not always easy. Paul Timmons manages Portland and raises issues of the exact logistics of providing support – and deliver those supports and the best way possible. For example, many generous individuals have offered to donate medical supplies including used medical equipment such as wheelchairs or walkers. However, just with the cost of transporting, shipping and delivering equipment, it could cost a good $30-50 to transport a piece of used equipment that might be worth less than $20 (especially with all of the current difficulties around shipping, in general). Shortly after the hurricane, also, fuel and water deliveries were getting priority, so these types of supplies may have just been sitting outside of ports not being delivered. In some of our conversations, Timmons told me that cash donations were the best way to go – to support Portlight’s limited staff on the ground and for delivering basic supplies, even including water directed at people with disabilities.

    This can present a conundrum for people who want to help with new or used medical equipment, but have limited funds to donate actual cash. We believe it’s another reason to prepare for future disasters across the whole supply line providing medical resources. It’s very valuable for us to all raise awareness about the reality of natural disasters and the potential need for medical equipment immediately afterward. Then, people can donate new or used supplies ahead of time (say, if they get a new wheelchair and have an old spare, just have too many supplies laying around, or if their relative passes away and left some equipment). We can identify organizations with space to hold those supplies, a distribution network, and then build connections with disaster relief partners to provide supplies as needed. And of course, there still is the issue of funding: money is needed to support warehouses, distribution networks, staff time and more. Everything works together in the end. Raise awareness, build a community, create response infrastructure, lock in funding to support it all, and respond strongly when disaster strikes. Even more, do it ahead of time – because it shouldn’t take a Hurricane Maria to do fundraising, or a frantic search for the right equipment when it’s needed. That’s why we call this Disaster Readiness and Response (DRR): readiness is vital, and makes everything else work that much better.

    If you would like to learn more about Portlight and their work, and to donate to their efforts after this year’s many disasters, visit


Climate and Disability Workshop

    In July, WID hosted a workshop on climate change and disability at Berkeley’s Ed Roberts Campus, the home of our office. It was sponsored very generously by the Office of Health Equity at the California Department of Public Health. Nearly 40 attendees showed up to learn about the connection between climate change and disability and have group discussions about what this means for them, and what we all can do moving forward for our communities. The workshop itself was a few hours long, but we’ve produced a 45-minute video with our presentations and some thoughts from the audience members. Please check it out below, and share it widely!

Upcoming Webinar

    The California Department of Public Health has also supported us in hosting a webinar on climate change and disability. This free webinar will be available online, and we will send out more information when we set a date and time for the event!

WID Launches “WID E3”

A banner reading "WID E3: Employment & Economic Empowerment"
    Last month, WID launched our “Employment & Economic Empowerment” initiative. WID E3 is an online resource to assist those serving youth and adults with disabilities and their supporters with information, strategies, and techniques that will help to increase the potential of youth and adults with disabilities for work and economic participation. WID E3 addresses the often overlooked roadblocks to full inclusion and equity.

    WID E3 resources focus on key subjects and strategies including: Employment Empowerment, Benefits Empowerment, & Economic Empowerment. Please visit the WID E3 page for more information on all these topics and more.

In the News

Copyright © 2017 World Institute on Disability, All rights reserved.

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