People With Disabilities Left Behind During Katrina Tell Their Stories

What you probably won't hear about very much in the coverage looking back at Katrina is the enormous impact this disaster had on people with disabilities. They, too, were disproportionately affected, but just not because of Mother Nature.
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On the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina striking the Gulf Coast, many familiar phrases will briefly re-enter our daily lexicon: levees, the Superdome, Lower Ninth, FEMA trailers. And lots of anger and sadness and pain will return to millions of Gulf Coast residents who have largely tried to forget and move on.

You will hear a lot of about how the storm disproportionately affected people of color and people with low income, as you rightly should. The storm's impact and the human-caused problem of levee failure seemed designed to impact that community, while the tourist friendly areas of the city went comparatively unscathed.

What you probably won't hear about very much is the enormous impact this disaster had on people with disabilities. They, too, were disproportionately affected, but just not because of Mother Nature.

I traveled to New Orleans to ask people with disabilities and disability rights advocates what happened. The answer was simple and sad: There was no plan to rescue them. Their stories appear in "The Right to be Rescued", a new short documentary produced by Rooted in Rights, a project of Disability Rights Washington.

There was no plan to transport wheelchairs or provide electricity for ventilators. There was no pre-planning for evacuating hospitals and nursing homes. No accommodations were made for people who are Deaf or blind inside emergency shelters. The list goes on, touching on every right that people with disabilities fight to have in everyday life, which went simply went unaccounted for in the emergency. This wasn't a plan that overlooked inconveniences that everyone experiences in these scenarios, this was a plan that overlooked important, life-preserving accommodations that many people with disabilities need in order to live.

During Katrina, people with disabilities were denied the right to be rescued.

But this film is not an exposé on New Orleans or other Gulf communities. It is not, and is not meant to be, another is a long list of excellent and important documentaries and articles that have taken government leaders to task for what has happened. There is no reason to ask the people we interviewed to recount the painful stories of friends and family who died during the storm if there is no hope that things will change.

That's where you come in. Use our film, show it to your local city council, your county government, or the person who handles evacuations at your school or business. If there's no information about emergency preparedness for people with disabilities on your local Red Cross or disaster agency's website. Call them. Make them listen.

A hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, but earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, heat waves, chemical spills, and countless other disasters can strike everywhere else. The whole point of emergency planning is to think ahead. We need emergency planners everywhere to think ahead about everybody.

The cost comes in the lives of people, like those in New Orleans and elsewhere, who were ignored, forgotten, and abandoned when the flood waters rose.

Everybody has the right to be rescued.

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