More than half in U.S. at greater risk in disasters


More than 50% of the U.S. population may be in need of special attention during extreme weather events, with such emergencies putting the disabled, seniors and children at greater risk.

Nearly one in five Americans is disabled, which means about 60 million people are more at risk during times of emergency.

“Very little is known as to how to make these individuals safe,” says Irwin Redlener, head of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and one of the foremost authorities on disaster relief.

Case in point, he says, are the many problems that arose during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, such as seniors stuck in high-rise buildings in New York City, left without power or use of elevators.

Too few emergency planners have the expertise necessary to ensure preparations make adequate provisions for disabilities, according to the National Organization on Disability (NOD).

To their credit, government agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and relief organizations such as the American Red Cross as well as non-profits such as NOD have tips and information available for people with disabilities to help them or caregivers during hazardous events. There is even a campaign, eSSENTIAL Accessibility, to help people with disabilities access vital information online.

Yet, until further studies are completed on how to better respond to those impaired during emergency situations, millions of Americans remain at risk.

“That type of information can only be generated by well-organized studies,” Redlener, who also co-founded the Children’s Heath Fund with singer/songwriter Paul Simon, says.

But those studies cost money, and funding for disasters largely comes after the fact.

“Our response to disaster planning in this country is very reactionary,” says Robert Ottenhoff, chief executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., adding that about 90% of all donations for disasters are given within 90 days of the event, and there is little in the way of advance funding for disaster planning.

To be sure, the U.S. is not alone in its vulnerability problem. During a brutal heatwave in the summer of 2003, an estimated 70,000 people died in Europe, mostly seniors in France whose homes did not have air conditioning.

High temperatures affect seniors and children most, in terms of age groups, because they have deteriorating or developing central nervous systems, respectively. As numerous studies released during Climate Week in New York prove, global temperatures will continue to rise, meaning more people will be vulnerable to extreme weather events.

To prepare and care for those impaired, FEMA’s website recommends customizing an emergency supply kit with medical equipment, prescription medications and medical necessities, including food for special diets.

Communication is also important: “Plan how you will contact your family members by calling, or e-mailing or texting agreed upon friends or relatives if you’re unable to contact each other directly,” FEMA advises. At work, discuss assistance you may need with your employer in the event of an emergency, it recommends.

Many state emergency management offices or agencies keep a voluntary registry of people with disabilities; these should be sought out. Also, “ICEs” or in case of emergency contact numbers, should be programmed into mobile phones and copies of medical records, insurance records and treatment routines, as well as any allergy information should be readily available.

If you have neighbors at risk, check in on them. We all may be at risk during a disaster, but some of us are more at risk than others and need more care.