Webcast archive: People with disabilities and natural disasters

A webcast on: natural disasters and disability. We look at Hurricane Katrina, emergency preparedness guides from Ontario, Quebec, & BC, plus accessible disaster relief.

Webcast archive: People with disabilities and natural disasters

In this episode of Euthanasia & Disability, Amy Hasbrouck, Christian Debray, and Taylor Hyatt discuss:

  • People with disabilities and natural disasters

Please note that this text is only a script and that our webcast contains additional commentary.


  • One week after Taylor suggested today’s topic, six tornadoes struck the Ottawa/Gatineau area. This followed a summer that featured a heat wave which killed 89 people in Québec, and record-breaking forest fires in Ontario and British Columbia.
  • Though Taylor lives in Ottawa, she was lucky to only lose power for about 45 minutes after the tornadoes. An eighteen-year-old flashlight did its job, but she has since ordered a new one!
  • For others with disabilities, like Ellen Lougheed, not having electricity for several days meant she could not charge her wheelchair, adjust her bed, or use her CPAP machine to help her breathe at night.
  • Just as the consequences of “Natural disasters” are sometimes made worse by the “unnatural” effects of human activity on the climate, so are the impacts of such disasters made worse for people with disabilities by the very “unnatural” effects of discrimination and disability prejudice.  One of the most infamous recent examples was the euthanasia of patients at the Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  About 2,000 staff, patients, family and pets were trapped by floodwaters when the levees broke after the storm.  The hospital lost electricity (air conditioning, elevators, lights), running water (bathing, sanitation) medical equipment and outside communication,  Due to miscommunication and lack of resources, evacuation was delayed and very slow.  At first, people were airlifted via an out-of-service helipad, that was reached by a complicated route up- and down-stairs.
  • Medical staff prioritized patients for evacuation by their chance of survival, whether they could move themselves, and if they had a “do not resuscitate” order in their charts.  The people who were immobile, sickest and those with a DNR were last in line for rescue.  Eventually, 23 people in this group were given a mix of morphine and a sedative that killed them, even as more helicopters were arriving to carry people to safety.  The grand jury in the case refused to lay charges.
  • In general, people with disabilities are more likely to be injured or killed in natural disasters because:
    • Early warning systems and instructions may not be accessible;
    • Evacuation procedures don’t accommodate people who can’t walk;
    • people are forced to leave adaptive equipment behind;
    • Power outages affect medical devices and adaptive equipment;
    • People who need personal assistance often can’t get help.
  • Some coping strategies depend on individual planning and preparation, such as:
    • Identifying and preparing for the hazards where you live, like house fires, wildfires, chemical or nuclear accidents, extreme weather, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanos, or mudslides;
    • Making a plan:
      • For safety at home;
      • For evacuating; and
      • For contacting family and your support network.
    • Preparing an emergency survival kit, including:
      • Basic survival supplies, like food, water, flashlights, batteries, etc.; and
      • Disability-related items, like medical equipment, prescriptions, medication, adaptive equipment for mobility, hearing, vision and communication, personal assistance services, assistance animals, etc.
  • We looked at several guides that focus on emergency preparedness for people with disabilities.  Each plan has its strengths and weaknesses.
  • None of these guides seems to take poverty into account. Many people with disabilities can’t afford generators, spare wheelchair batteries, or vehicles.
  • Disability rights advocate Anita Cameron has a better approach.  In her detailed post on common sense emergency planning for people with disabilities, she suggests building up a supply of food and water a little at a time. It could be as simple as buying an extra can of soup when you can afford it, and adding it to a box of emergency supplies. As well, keep extra copies of important documents (like prescriptions, insurance card and your birth certificate) in a bag you can easily grab if you need to leave your home quickly.
  • The success of a personal plan depends on how well public officials prepare for and manage disasters.  So, for example, even if you have your “go-bag” ready, with medications documents and equipment, it won’t do you any good if the evacuation shelter isn’t accessible.  In 2015, a California woman lost her life in a wildfire because emergency responders didn’t get to her in time.
  • Finding information about whether emergency management plans include accessibility is not easy.  Local emergency plans are not generally available on the internet.  Québec’s emergency measures plan focuses on the duties of public officials and building owners.
  • On the other hand, the Incident Management System in Ontario only uses the word “disability” once, in relation to public advisories; the word “wheelchair” does not appear. In British Columbia, emergency plans are made at a local level, according to provincial regulations.  The Program Management Regulation, does not mention accessibility, only that the minister of Health must “provide support and supervision services for physically challenged or medically disabled persons affected by an emergency.”
  • In the United States, Portlight Strategies (headed by Paul Timmons) and the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies (led by Marcie Roth) have been working for 20 years with governments and non-profits to make disaster relief accessible on a larger scale. The foundation has negotiated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross in the United States.  Here are a few examples of their work:
    • They have provided relief and recovery assistance to people with disabilities affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricanes KatrinaHarvey, (and many more); Superstorm Sandy; numerous tornados, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the Butte and Valley wildfires in California.
    • They offer conferences to provide training and information sharing to government officials and agency leaders on how to ensure accessibility during emergencies. As well, Portlight works with emergency shelters to make sure they are accessible.
    • They advocate for the inclusion of the disability advocates in disaster planning, to ensure that the values of accessibility and equity feature prominently in disaster management and recovery.
  • In the end, each person should take responsibility for their own safety in case of emergency.  That means making a plan, assembling a survival kit, learning about the local disaster management policy, and informing police and fire/rescue officials about their needs in the event of an emergency.  At the same time, disabled people must work together to reduce the impact of discrimination in the management of these life-or-death situations, and help each other when the going gets tough.