Autistic Future
September 20th, 2017

Disability and Disaster

Rippling waters rise as raindrops fall.

The Urgency of Dis­as­ter Planning

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.