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Inside the Organization Saving Disabled People During Hurricane Harvey - Pacific Stan
Thanks to Marty Rosenblatt for this link.Pacific Standard
An interview with Paul Timmons, co-founder of a non-profit that helps the
most vulnerable escape from natural disasters.DAVID M. PERRY
When natural disasters strike, disabled people are among the most
vulnerable. Disability acts as a multiplier, intensifying risk from both
natural and human forces. Among other concerns, disabled people often
cannot evacuate on their own, or they struggle to carry their medical
equipment with them (which can be necessary for preserving life).
Emergency services may ignore the needs of a disabled person—sometimes,
according to experts in inclusive disaster relief, even blaming disabled
people for not planning better. Such experts are concerned that too many
emergency responders treat people with disabilities as objects with no
agency or rights, tossing them into whatever institutional setting they
During Hurricane Harvey, stories of disabled people in jeopardy have
proliferated across private social media networks in the disability rights
world, punctuated by periodic news stories in the general press, such as
this shocking one from Galveston, Texas, that depicts seniors up to their
waists in floodwaters. Enter Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies. The
501(c)3 organization was founded in the late 1990s as a way to recycle and
distribute durable medical equipment, but, during Hurricane Katrina, the
non-profit shifted its focus to disaster relief. According to Paul
Timmons, co-founder and current chairman of Portlight, he became involved
in Katrina after other members of the disability rights community alerted
him to numerous abandoned wheelchairs at the New Orleans airport following
the storm (people had been evacuated without their equipment, as NPR
reported at the time). Portlight, with its experience moving equipment to
those in need, sprang into action.
Since then, the organization has been involved in relief for people with
disabilities in every natural disaster in the United States and is
currently engaged with the response to Hurricane Harvey. Pacific Standard
caught up with Timmons over the phone on Sunday night, to ask about what
he's hearing from Texas, and how emergency responders can serve disabled
people just as well as they do non-disabled people.
How did Portlight get involved in inclusive disaster response?
Portlight was founded in 1997. We began initially recycling and
distributing durable medical equipment. [After Hurricane] Katrina, we
began repatriating people with their medical equipment. The National Guard
took a guy or gal, threw them over their shoulder, and got them the hell
out. From there, we were very involved in a number of different pieces of
the Katrina response. Then right after that was Hurricane Rita [and]
Hurricane Ike, which hit the Texas coast in 2008, and we've been involved
in any disaster response ever since then.
What do readers need to know about people with disabilities and disasters?
The most important message is for the emergency responders, the emergency
management people: There is no disaster loophole when it comes to ensuring
the civil rights of people with disabilities. That message drives
everything else that goes on in this space.
I assume you're saying this because too often emergency service workers
ignore the rights of disabled people.
Whether it's the Red Cross, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or
state or local emergency management folks, frequently these are people who
come out of the medical community—nurses, E.M.T.s, firefighters, etc. As a
result of that, they don't know what they don't know. And they're pretty
firmly rooted in the medical model. As long as you've got a bed, and
you're OK, and someone's bringing you food—the fact that you want to roll
outside and smoke a cigarette does not resonate with them.
So they treat a person as a problem to solve medically, not a person with
rights and agency.
It's an uphill climb. There's just historically deep-rooted medical model
thinking, so that it makes the gains more torturously incremental.
What is Portlight doing right now [Sunday night]?
Information gathering and resource referral. At this point, it's largely a
rescue situation. Even the responders can't move around Houston right now.
We know that there will be need for durable medical replacement. We're
prepared to help with that, and the need for short-term lodging. And we're
also gathering information, anecdotal information, where the system is
going wrong, so we can use that in our ongoing efforts to educate and
mitigate some of the problems.
This is probably going to transition on Wednesday or Thursday to filling
direct immediate needs. Traditionally that's been replacing durable
Because that equipment is either damaged by the water or abandoned?
All of the above, that's correct. The more long-term piece—on the very
best day, housing is a real challenge for our community, and these
obviously aren't going to be the best days. So medium- to long-term
housing always becomes a problem. We're expecting to serve as a resource.
How should people with disabilities, their loved ones, and caregivers
prepare for disasters?
Everyone should have a personal plan. It's counterintuitive not to have
some idea of what you're going to do if a giant schism rips open the
surface of the Earth. But it's the job of the people in the business [of
disaster response] to serve our community.
My concern about the focus on personal planning is this: It can lead to
scapegoatism and a false sense of security. There was a woman in the
 California wildfire with multiple sclerosis who died. She had a
great plan. ... It turned to shit when the balloon went off. Emergency
responders could have gotten to her and saved her, and they didn't.
Everybody should have a plan, but I don't think it lets people in the
business [of disaster response] off the hook.
What needs to happen in other places before the next disaster strikes?
Where this [inclusive disaster response] works is where there are
pre-existing relationships between people in the emergency management
community and people in the disability stakeholder community. Where it
doesn't work is where those relationships don't exist. It's too late to
build those relationships once the disaster has come.
There are a lot of granular solutions. Almost all of them come from the
creation and cultivation of relationships.
BY DAVID M. PERRY