Emergency planning often overlooks the needs of the most vulnerable during natural disasters.
When the power went out at Ann Foxworth’s home in Austin on February 15, the 71-year old’s phone rang nonstop as friends checked in on her and her husband. Foxworth soon started to worry that the battery on her phone would die, leaving the couple, who are both blind, cut off from vital information, as Winter Storm Uri caused massive power outages across the state.
The couple relies on friends and volunteers to get them to the grocery store or doctor’s appointments and had no way to evacuate their home as it got colder inside. With the roads covered in snow, it became increasingly dangerous for anyone to check on them. Foxworth and her husband decided to stay put until a concerned friend made the trek, taking the couple to their home with heat and power. The next day, with the power back on in their neighborhood, the couple decided to head home—but now, there was no running water. The City of Austin was distributing water at locations around the city, but the Foxworths couldn’t find a way to access it.
“We called 311, and I said, ‘You know, we’re blind. We don’t drive. Can someone bring us some water?’ And they said, ‘Nobody’s really set up for that,’” Foxworth recalls.
Winter Storm Uri left millions without power and running water for days, and Texans with disabilities like Foxworth were largely left to fend for themselves. According to a survey from Disability Rights Texas, a nonprofit advocacy group, some people were left without access to transportation and power for life-saving medical equipment. Others lost thousands of dollars worth of assistive technology, like specialized computers and electric wheelchairs, when frozen pipes burst, flooding homes. Emergency alerts sent from local officials weren’t always accessible to those with visual or hearing difficulties, or those who use assistive technology to read on screens.
According to state data, 3.1 million Texans have a disability, whether that’s a visual or hearing impairment, cognitive difficulty, or mobility limitation: a population larger than the entire state of Iowa. Yet in most counties and cities across Texas, emergency management plans regularly fail to account for the needs of disabled residents. State programs and registries that do exist are not always accessible, or are underutilized. “I mean, we’re just the last thing on the agenda,” Foxworth says. “Maybe we’re not even on the agenda.”
Vulnerable residents—those who have disabilities, or who don’t have transportation if an evacuation is required—can opt into the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry (STEAR), a database managed by the Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) that provides personal information to local disaster and emergency management officials.
In theory, local officials could have known that Foxworth, who signed up for STEAR with the assistance of a sighted friend, needed additional assistance during the crisis, and responded accordingly. But registering doesn’t guarantee assistance. TDEM doesn’t use the database in it’s own planning, passing that decision down to local officials, who often have limited resources and staff to prioritize people with disabilities. There were 85,700 people signed up for the database at the beginning of March, says Seth Christensen, TDEM’s spokesperson.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” says Sean Jackson, an attorney with Disability Rights Texas. “It’s a good idea, but it’s a list of names. Without some mandatory, actionable plan and a coordinated response at the state, it doesn’t mean anything.” Accordingly, few people who need it have signed up: only 6 percent of respondents to the Disability Rights Texas survey.
For people with disabilities, even small-scale disasters can present major setbacks, says Brandi Levingston, a professor whose research centers on disability at the University of North Texas (UNT), who also has a visual impairment. Water damage after a fire in an apartment complex she lived in once ruined thousands of dollars worth of hard-to-replace equipment. Hundreds of people may now be in a similar situation. During a crisis itself, planning around accessibility is often left to individuals themselves, who in turn rely on family and friends to assist with any complications. That might mean arranging transportation and checking to see if an evacuation shelter is accessible for those with wheelchairs, assistive pets, or medical equipment.
In an extreme case, like the winter storm, individual preparedness might entail stocking up on expensive, vital medication in a disaster kit along with food and water, or making sure that assistive technology can be transported in case of an evacuation, Levingston says. But nationwide, people with disabilities are far more likely to be underemployed or unemployed, deepening the crisis that they experience during a natural disaster like the winter storm. Pay gaps between those with and without disabilities exceeds $20,000 a year for workers with a college degree. Research has also found that people with disabilities are more likely to be socially isolated and have fewer systems of informal support.
It’s taken decades of advocacy and research for communities on the ground to get disaster management experts and government agencies to recognize that disasters affect people differently based on race, income, and other demographic factors. Much of that came out of the post-Hurricane Katrina era, says Laura Stough, the assistant director at Texas A&M’s Center on Disability and Development.
During that hurricane, which pummeled the Louisiana coast in 2005, Black residents in New Orleans were hit the hardest, a pattern which has been documented in nearly every major natural disaster since. But when it comes to disability, Stough says that the data sometimes doesn’t even exist to prove the point.
“It’s not disaggregated by disability, like it is by race,” she says. “We could do the research in a heartbeat, but people with disabilities aren’t even counted.” That lack of data, combined with what Stough describes as “hundreds of years of stigma towards people with disabilities,” has all but left them out of the emergency planning process.
For the past few years, Stough has also served as the chair of the state’s Disability Task Force to TDEM. She and other members have advocated that TDEM hire a full-time disability coordinator whose sole job would be to focus on the needs of disabled Texans during disasters. But Stough says there was resistance to the idea when the task force brought it to TDEM’s chief, Nimm Kidd. “[TDEM] understands the need but they just haven’t done it, even though their own task force of experts, people with disabilities, and parents, are asking for this,” she says. According to TDEM’s spokesperson, the agency has staff members “specifically dedicated” to implement best practices regarding disability. The agency did not make a staff member available for an interview.
“We don’t have any mandates to plan for all these socially vulnerable groups,” says Ronald Schumann, a professor in the Department of Emergency Management and Disaster Management at UNT. While there’s been a push to take a “whole community approach” in disaster management, it hasn’t always translated into action. Certain types of disaster plans that are tied to federal funding have to be updated every few years to account for changing natural disasters and threats, but there are no state or local requirements that those plans look at the demographics of the community they are designed to protect.
One benefit of having a coordinator who would push for and implement accessible disaster management policies is that those policies tend to help everyone fare better during a disaster, Stough says. “The needs of people with disabilities have always been overlooked, but there are layers of risk factors,” she says. Poverty, racial disparities, and social isolation, for example, are issues that face people of color, immigrant groups, and rural communities, after all. “If you could solve the hardest problems for people with disabilities, you could solve them for other people too.”
For Foxworth, the blind 71-year-old in Austin, relying on the kindness of neighbors, friends, and volunteers was nothing new. While she didn’t see any major damages at her house during the winter storm, she’s been frustrated by another disaster that’s been difficult to navigate: the COVID 19 pandemic. Signing up for her COVID-19 vaccination has also been “freaking chaos,” she says, because the websites weren’t accessible for blind users. She’s used to struggling for access. “Our struggle is ongoing,” she says. “But it’s a lot worse for us when something is stressing everybody else out as well.”