Disability and Disaster
The Caribbean suffered terribly, but Florida escaped the worst of Hurricane Irma. Still, vulnerable people there weren’t safe. Nine nursing home residents in Hollywood Hills, Florida succumbed to the heat when their facility lost power. These extremely vulnerable people with disabilities lost whatever time was left to them, whatever living there might have been. It seems likely that there will be punishment or compensation, but it’s impossible to return what was lost. The most tragic part of the whole situation may be that the dead weren’t killed by the storm through flooding, wind, or the collapse of a building. They didn’t die of the conditions that caused them to need the help that was regrettably unavailable to them outside of an institution. They died, mostly, of slipping through the cracks in the plans of everyone around them. They died because no one could be bothered to prevent it.
Various media outlets reporting on the story have described a cascade of failures. None of the decision-makers involved in this story apparently foresaw the extraordinarily foreseeable. The nursing home, accustomed to operating in a very warm climate, aware of its’ residents frailty, failed to maintain a backup generator sufficient to keep the air conditioning on. Some similar facilities found themselves in the same situation and decided to send their residents somewhere cooler, starting with the most vulnerable people. Even as heat-related medical emergencies mounted, the nursing home failed to move people out.
Someone did eventually call 911, but there may have been a significant delay between the time of the call and the dispatch of first responders. The air conditioning stayed off for so long in part because the nursing home had been given a relatively low priority for having power restored. If one thing on this list of failures had gone right, if the people had been evacuated or the power had come on sooner, the dead would probably be alive. Nine people died for the sole reason that the slipped through the cracks, that no one made plans for them to survive.
It’s unsurprising that vulnerable people died in the wake of the storm. At least one major media outlet was reporting that there was very little support for low-income or otherwise vulnerable people, either in evacuating or riding out the storm just before Irma made landfall. If the hurricane had done more damages in Florida, it seems certain that more people who lack resources, need help or reliable electricity to survive, or are otherwise especially vulnerable would have died. The basic, common sense work of preventing these kinds of deaths wasn’t adequately done, though Florida is famous for being a place where people go to retire. The lack of thought that went, and often goes, into protecting vulnerable people is a telling statement about who is valued in Florida and across the country.
This is also what usually happens. Vulnerable people frequently die of being ignored in emergencies or narrowly survive through lucky encounters with good Samaritans. Inadequate planning for people who need help to survive natural disasters is a national problem. If the many scientists who think growing numbers of extreme weather events are to be expected in coming years are right, deaths like these will become more common unless communities take action to prevent them. Vulnerable people will only survive future disasters if they are valued enough to merit common sense planning for basic needs. People will continue to die such needless deaths until more communities remember elders, the sick, and the disabled in disaster planning.