Assessing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina On Persons With Disabilities
Despite the long history of hurricanes in the Gulf States, Hurricane Katrina and the other storms of 2005 were an anomaly - far more severe than anything that had occurred before in terms of both severity and breadth. The recent history of hurricanes on the Gulf Coast were on a much smaller scale, and after a few days of inconvenience, individuals, including people with disabilities, resumed their daily lives. The force of Katrina pushed human and material resources to extreme limits. It had a severe disruptive impact on entire communities, including people with and without disabilities as well as political, social, and legal systems.
The research sites in the Gulf States were well equipped in terms of counties served by CILs (see Figure One). Emergency shelters and designated transportation providers were populated throughout the area, as were emergency management agencies at the county level. However, the infrastructure that supports communities of all sizes throughout the Gulf States was not significantly coordinated to maximize evacuation of residents with disabilities.10 Interviews and focus groups with people with disabilities in the affected areas revealed an unprecedented pattern of disruption and loss.
Every person interviewed for this report lost their residence and household belongings, while over half lost items that significantly affected their independence for weeks or even months after the storm. These included such things as vehicles, durable medical equipment, or accessible housing. Many also lost the family or social networks that sustained them. Reactions of respondents understandably ranged from fear and disbelief, to shock, grief, anger, and considerable depression.A unique consequence of Hurricane Katrina is the significant amount of time that persons with disabilities displaced by the disaster stayed with extended families, and the corresponding physical, emotional, and financial stress this placed on them and their families. Many of the focus group interviewees among CIL staff and consumers evacuated to relatives’ homes. While some stayed only a few nights before moving on to shelters or other temporary housing, many stayed with families for weeks and even months while attempting to rebuild their lives.
All of the CILs interviewed reported that damage to their facilities and equipment during the storms hampered their efforts to respond to consumers and others who
requested assistance. The ability of CILs to function internally also was significantly disrupted, including an inability to process payrolls, recover files on computers, pay vendors, and maintain other essential services.
What were the causes of this unprecedented upheaval in the lives of people with disabilities in the Gulf States? One cause, of course, is the unanticipated severity of the storm. However, the research on which this report is based revealed significant gaps in three key areas: pre-disaster planning, pre- and post-disaster communication and information, and pre- and post-disaster coordination.