MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Disabled people, and especially elderly people who are disabled, are some of the most at risk when there is a hurricane or another natural disaster. Well, now it is storm season. And with the coronavirus virus, there's even more danger, as NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Here's how people with disabilities and the elderly are at that high risk. It was 2017, and a dam 75 miles north of Sacramento, Calif., was overflowing. There was danger the dam was about to break. Almost 200,000 people who lived nearby evacuated. Katy Willis is a quadriplegic. She relies upon caregivers to help her get around.
KATY WILLIS: I was at my apartment. And the caregiver that was supposed to come in at 4 o'clock was a young girl. And she just took off up the hill and ran and left me there by myself.
SHAPIRO: Willis didn't have transportation. She was one of the last to get out. And then when she got to the emergency shelter, she says the staff said they couldn't help a woman in a wheelchair who needed caregivers. She was sent home to fend for herself.
WILLIS: Oh, it was really scary. I felt like I was worth nothing.
SHAPIRO: The dam held. Today, Willis volunteers with a California group to improve emergency planning to protect people with disabilities and the elderly. They're the ones most at risk. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 and when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, most of the dead were elderly. Now, add a virus.
SANDY HANEBRINK: The COVID is really - puts a wrench in things, you know.
SHAPIRO: Sandy Hanebrink too is a quadriplegic. She's been evacuated to shelters in churches and schools where she couldn't get in with her wheelchair. Now she runs her own nonprofit agency and helps to evacuate other disabled people in South Carolina. This season, during a pandemic, she says it's going to be really hard.
HANEBRINK: How are they going to do social distancing? What are they going to do if there is positive in the shelter?
SHAPIRO: Then they'd need extra shelter space to separate people infected with COVID-19, but that means extra staff. And that's another problem.
HANEBRINK: A lot of the shelter volunteers are seniors, so they're at-risk population. They are afraid there's not going to be enough volunteers and workers.
SHAPIRO: A complex network responds to disasters - state and local governments, nonprofits like the American Red Cross run shelters. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, provides funding, assistance and guidance.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DONALD PAYNE JR: The Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery will come to order.
SHAPIRO: A year ago, Congress held a hearing to look at whether FEMA is doing enough. The subcommittee chairman, Donald Payne Junior, a New Jersey Democrat, was unhappy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PAYNE: Unfortunately, FEMA chose not to attend this hearing.
SHAPIRO: That hearing centered around a stinging congressional audit. It found that even FEMA's own managers didn't know the plan for helping disabled people, that FEMA's shelter intake forms didn't have a question to accurately figure out who had a disability. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, a year later, Payne says he still can't get satisfactory answers.
PAYNE: It's like pulling teeth. This administration is really a challenge. Hopefully what we're saying is getting through to them and they're not responding to us but making sure that they're prepared. So that's the most we can hope for under these circumstances.
SHAPIRO: At FEMA, the head of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination told us they've changed things. There is a clear question now on the intake forms to identify people with disabilities. And FEMA will help state and local governments use more hotel space this year.
LINDA MASTANDREA: The good news is a lot of the things that folks need to do to prepare remain the same, COVID or not.
SHAPIRO: Linda Mastandrea runs that FEMA office. She says people with disabilities need to get themselves ready for a disaster.
MASTANDREA: Do I have particular medical needs? So do I need to be thinking about getting three months' worth of prescriptions? For me, as a wheelchair user, I always have extra tires. I have a portable pump, right? What are those kind of things that I need to get me through?
SHAPIRO: Still, for someone with a disability, that's a lot to do, even without the coronavirus pandemic.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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