Like many of us, Marcie Roth has spent the last 14 days poring over weather data and forecasts.
But instead of feeling dread or anxiety about the monster storms poised to devastate communities across the country, Roth has seen an opportunity to get disaster preparation and response right for those who are often overlooked: people with disabilities.
As the CEO of Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a nonprofit organization that works with people who have disabilities, Roth spent the past few weeks coordinating response efforts with local, state, and federal groups and managing the organization’s response to emergency assistance calls logged to its toll-free hotline.
These calls came from parents whose children couldn’t get essential medical supplies, life-saving drugs, and hospital-grade formula. They came from nursing home residents with disabilities who needed rescuing. They came from evacuees who fled to a shelter only to discover it didn’t or wouldn’t accommodate people with disabilities as required by federal law. Out of 650 requests for urgent aid related to Harvey’s destruction, the organization has been able to resolve 77 percent of the calls.
Just a few days out from coordinating a dramatic helicopter drop of medicine for an epileptic child in Lumberton, Texas, Roth is now watching Hurricane Irma barrel through the Caribbean and threaten to pummel Miami and southern Florida. She’s working with hundreds of stakeholders to help communities in Irma’s projected path prepare for and respond to the storm. Her focus is on ensuring that people with disabilities lead the way in advocating for their needs and that local officials sufficiently address those requirements.
People with disabilities are more likely to be killed or injured in natural disasters, but that’s not because of physical or psychological constraints themselves, according to Roth.
“We are extremely resourceful,” she says. “We’re actually quite good at solving complex problems; however, when physical accessibility isn’t provided, and communication isn’t accessible, we have a much more difficult time accessing the same services and supports everyone else gets.”
Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, which has previously worked abroad, is preparing for a response effort to Irma in the United States and its territories, including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Every day the organization convenes several phone calls with participants that include the federal government, local and state officials, public health authorities, faith-based groups, private companies, and other nonprofits.
Together they are trying to anticipate and identify potential challenges. Some are common to every natural disaster, like knowing which airports might have a surplus of wheelchair-accessible busses for evacuations and reminding the media to include a sign language interpreter in its live shots of public officials sharing critical information.
“Each disaster has its own fingerprints. There are just layers and layers of challenges.”
Other crises are harder to predict. That could include, for example, dealing with a pharmacy that refuses to ship medication to a disaster area and helping families improvise a way to share their medication.
“Each disaster has its own fingerprints,” says Roth, who formerly directed the office of Disability Integration and Coordination at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “There are just layers and layers of challenges.”
While the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies is currently focusing on the urgent needs presented by Irma and Harvey, it marshals a similar response to any type of natural disaster, including ice storms, wild fires, earthquakes, and chemical spills.
The organization’s role is to keep stakeholders talking to each other to optimize limited resources and minimize misinformation. So while it can’t evacuate thousands of people, the nonprofit can help facilitate evacuation efforts amongst dozens of groups.
The goal, says Roth, is to help survivors maintain good physical and mental health so they can get back to their everyday lives, and if possible, their homes and medical supplies and equipment. And the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies is working on a newly formed initiative with other organizations to replace lost or damaged equipment and supplies. It has received an influx of donations since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. That includes $25,000 promised to the organization by Donald Trump.
“Everybody’s support, whether it’s a large donation or the incredible generosity of people standing out and selling lemonade all weekend … all of that goes toward helping us to protect the civil rights of children and people with disabilities,” Roth says.
When it comes to a record-setting storm like Irma, that starts with empowering people to advocate for what they need — and galvanizing communities and authorities to help make it happen.